Times Review

January 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ gets new look at Wolf Trap’s Barns

Chamber version of classic comic opera a bellyful of success. Photo: Carol Pratt
Sunday, August 11, 2013 – Curtain Up! by Terry  Ponick
Terry  Ponick

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VIENNA, Va., August 10, 2013 – Verdi’s final opera, “Falstaff,” is not exactly a stranger to Washington area audiences. But the Wolf Trap Opera Company’s bracing chamber production of this substanstial work, now in its two-weekend run at The Barns, might very well be the best one we’ve seen in recent memory. Boasting fine singing by its youthful cast, all of whom possess equal comic and slapstick skills, it’s a memorable and enjoyable way for WTOC to wrap up its three-opera summer season.

“Falstaff,” Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera (1893) and his rowdiest hat tip to the Bard, was first performed when the composer was eighty years old. Its delightful libretto—an ingenious mash-up of Sir John’s antics as seen in “Henry IV” parts I and II and “The Merry Wives of Windsor”—was the creation of poet-composer Arrigo Boito, who also took the liberty of working the spirit of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” into the opera’s boisterous finale.

Sir John Falstaff (Craig Colclough) is bigger than life. So are the grease stains on his shirt. (All photos: Carol Pratt for WTOC)

Opera fans here will likely remember that both the Washington National Opera and Russia’s Kirov brought their own unique productions of Verdi’s Shakespeare-based comic masterpiece to life at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House in recent years. But the results of both efforts, sadly, proved mixed.

The Russians burdened their production with a heavy-handed dose of oh-so-clever directorial vanity, worsened by a dismal, droopy lead soloist whose Falstaff seemed to sleepwalk through the title role. WNO’s production likewise was burdened by a lame directorial concept even though the singers did considerably better than their Russian counterparts.

When WTOC decided to give “Falstaff” a go, they faced their own issues. The lingering effects of the Great Recession are making it tougher these days to justify mounting a big, late Romantic opera like this one in the Filene Center, given the current budgets required to rent showy grand opera sets and pay the freight for a full orchestra.

SEE RELATED: CATF 2013: Jane Martin’s mind-blowing ‘H2O’

Already having lined up just the right singers, however, the company hit upon a simple but ingenious two part solution: mount “Falstaff” in the smaller, acoustically intimate space of the Barns; and make use of Jonathan Dove’s clever chamber orchestra-size musical arrangement to accommodate the minimal number of musicians who can be squeezed into The Barns’ cramped orchestra pit.

The result: Friday evening’s opening performance of the opera transformed it into something that seemed entirely fresh and new. No longer distant figures lost on a massive stage and drowned out on occasion by Verdi’s huge orchestral complement, Shakespeare’s familiar and beloved comic characters seemed unusually up close and personal to all in attendance.

Hmmm. Merry wives Alice Ford (Tracy Cox), her daughter Nannetta (Mireille Asselin), Mistress Quickly (Margaret Gawrysiak) and Meg Page (Carolyn Sproule) compare identical love notes from Falstaff.

And that describes the singing as well, no longer obscured as it often is by that big orchestra. The chamber accompaniment worked like magic, allowing Friday’s audience to hear the singers with considerably greater clarity than is normally the case.

SEE RELATED: ‘Girl of the Golden West’ a major hit at Castleton

Add to this the charming if occasionally bizarre costuming as well as the production’s spare but highly evocative movable set, and voilà! One of this summer’s most entertaining and rewarding musical evenings. “Falstaff,” at roughly three hours’ running time, is a bit on the long side. But this production was so loaded with good music, good singing and good fun that few bothered to consult their watches while the players were on stage.

Bass-baritone Craig Colclough was quite simply sensational as the considerably larger-than-life Sir John Falstaff, the dissolute knight-errant whose appetites,girth-control issues and amorous misadventures drive the entire production.

Mr. Colclough wears his greasy Sir John fat suit like a second skin, becoming the very embodiment of his character in word, deed, and appearance. He also knows how to adapt a Rossini-like basso-buffo vocal approach to Verdi’s late-Romantic era, creating a multifaceted musical and comical character that gives this production its drive as well as its overwhelming sense of fun.

Meg Page (Carolyn Sproule) and Mistress Quickly (Margaret Gawrysiak) make a desperate attempt to hide Falstaff (Craig Colclough) from the jealous Ford.

Sir John makes his first big mistake of the evening by tangling with Alice Ford (soprano Tracy Cox), Meg Page (mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule), and their pal and confidante Mistress Quickly (mezzo Margaret Gawrysiak)—those madcap Merry Wives of Windsor. Figuring out in the early innings that Falstaff’s love notes are far from sincere, they hatch a pair of plots designed to teach Sir John a lesson—make that two lessons—that he’ll never forget. All three of these merry roles are sung with relish.

It’s a particular delight to observe in this production the rapid development of Ms. Gawrysiak’s career which the Wolf Trap Opera hellped to launch. (We enjoyed her comic turn as the Wicked Witch in Virginia Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel” a couple of Christmases back.) A Wolf Trap Opera alumna, she was invited to join this production in the key role of Quickly, and she adds real wit to her performance with an outsize personality and a plummy, reassuring voice, both of which aim to thwart Sir John at every turn.

Bardolfo (Brent Ryan), Pistola (Aaron Sorensen) and Dr. Caius (Juan José de León) warn Ford (Norman Garrett, second from right) of Falstaff’s intent to woo Alice.

Also notable: Soprano Mireille Asselin, whose eager yet charming vocal approach to the character Nanetta—Alice’s daughter—provides some of the loveliest, most seductive moments in this production; tenor Matthew Grills, whose fumbling but always-willing-to-please and faithful Fenton is Nanetta’s love interest; and baritone Norman Garrett, whose deep, somber instrument proves an excellent foil for the part of Alice’s hulking, jealous husband Ford.

Juan José de Leon, Brenton Ryan, and Aaron Sorensen also sparkle, and occasionally leer, in their smaller comic roles as Dr. Caius, Bardolfo, and Pistola.

Wolf Trap’s young studio artists appear in the finale as forest sprites—and as the chorus—adding depth and brilliance to the soloists in Verdi’s exciting and amazing fugal wrap-up.

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Falsaff review

January 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Wolf Trap Opera’s ‘Falstaff’ is intimate and memorable

By  , Published: August 11

It’s a luxury to see a big opera in a small theater. There’s a sense of extravagance to Wolf Trap Opera Company’s “Falstaff,” which opened at the Barns on Friday night. The singers’ voices fill the house, while the audience sits close enough to them to pick up on the lift of an eyebrow or an expression of deadpan confoundedness. “Falstaff,” Verdi’s final opera, is a chamber opera on a grand scale, and to see it produced in a chamber-opera-size space, with voices that are right for the parts, was a lot of fun.

You don’t necessarily expect that a company specializing in young singers is going to be able to field a “Falstaff” cast. The title role of the fat knight is generally seen as the province of veteran bass-baritones who can bring poignancy to, for instance, the great Act III monologue when the bedraggled old man, fresh from being dumped into a ditch by the putative object of his affections, vents his spleen — on the world, his gray hair and his aging body — before being gradually restored to good spirits by the simple act of drinking wine and sitting in the sun.

But Craig Colclough — the Commendatore in last summer’s “Don Giovanni” and the title character in this production — and Tomer Zvulun, who directed that show as well as this one, proved to be strong in just such details, elevating a fairly conventional conception of the character into quite a memorable portrayal. You’ve seen other Falstaffs like Colclough’s before — a man in a fat suit with a frizzy, balding wig — but Colclough did it so consummately that it was hard to believe the singer is actually a young man. The delicacy and relish with which Falstaff peeled a hard-boiled egg — admiring it, flicking bits of shell onto a plate balanced atop his tummy at approximately the level of his chin, then consuming it — spoke volumes about his appetites. Colclough backed up the acting with a strong, expressive voice. There was occasional patchiness in the line when he went up into the upper middle part of his voice, but this was counterbalanced by a resounding top.

Context is everything: A couple of singers I’ve heard before seemed here to come into their own. Norman Garrett, an alum of the Domingo-Cafritz program, was perfectly fine but unremarkable in Wolf Trap’s “Il Viaggio a Reims” earlier this summer, but here he was imposing both vocally and physically as Ford, the husband of one of the women Falstaff is pursuing. And the promise and earnestness that I heard in the recital of the young tenor Matthew Grills in April were all evident to much better effect in his Fenton, who in type evoked the hero of a 1920s movie.

He was paired with a Nannetta who was in every sense slightly larger than he: Mireille Asselin sang this soubrette role with assurance and warm vocal color, emphasizing Grills’s callow naivete. But at the end, when Ford grudgingly accepts that Nannetta has married Fenton rather than the suitor he wanted for her, Zvulun had Fenton spontaneously throw his arms around Ford’s belly in childlike glee, a gesture that made me fall in love with this childlike character. Ford, with a look of icy resignation, gave Fenton — who came up to his shoulder, if that — a few stiff pats before disengaging him.

This “Falstaff’s” weakness lay in the execution of its ensembles. This opera involves a lot of tightly woven vocal interaction, and some of this just fell flat; Dean Williamson, the conductor, didn’t seem to have the complexities altogether in hand. The ensemble of women was made up of strong individual singers: Tracy Cox, who sang Alice, has a big impressive soprano; Margaret Gawrysiak, the mezzo who sang Mistress Quickly, has become a familiar face in this area because of several appearances at Wolf Trap and the Castleton Festival; and Carolyn Sproule was a pretty Meg Page. But they didn’t blend as cohesively as the men, whose ranks were rounded out by Aaron Sorensen and Brenton Ryan, looking convincingly unwashed and having evident fun as Falstaff’s henchmen Pistola and Bardolfo, respectively, as well as Juan José de León, who was less successful as a slightly overdone Dr. Caius — the one false step in Zvulun’s concept — than he was as Il Conte di Libenskof in “Il Viaggio a Reims.”

It doesn’t take a fortune to stage a good Falstaff; Erhard Rom’s simple wood-paneled set was as evocative as much more complex scenery I’ve seen. Nor does a director have to yield to the temptation of a concept production. Zvulun did, admittedly, introduce a deliberate chronological ambiguity by setting the scenes at the Garter Inn in the 16th century (presided over by a large portrait of the ruddy fat knight), while having the costume designer Vita Tzykun deck out the women in Victorian-era garb (their scenes dominated by an image of Verdi himself). The two-sided portrait was then destroyed in the third act, presumably representing the breakdown of the old order, of preconceptions, of definitions — whatever. I care less about his concept than his storytelling and his sense of character, and I came away from this production with a healthy respect for both.

Rake’s Progress Review

October 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

August 7, 2012

‘The Rake’s Progress’ gets potent staging from Wolf Trap Opera

Since the death of Puccini, few operas have established a foothold in the standard repertoire. “The Rake’s Progress” is one of them.The 1951 piece boasts a prismatic, rhythmically alive score by Stravinsky, in his most inventive neoclassical mode, and a clever, exceedingly literate libretto by one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, W. H. Auden, and his partner, Chester Kallman.

The work, inspired by Hogarth’s drawings, operates on various levels. It’s an old-fashioned morality tale, with Faustian overtones (and a good deal of wicked comedy), demonstrating how laziness and greed can destroy love and honor.

There’s also an argument here for simple country values versus the desensitizing effects of modern urban life, with its commercialism, materialism and hucksterism.

All of this can be richly savored in what easily ranks among …

the most satisfying Wolf Trap Opera Company productions, musically and theatrically, of the past decade or so.

When “The Rake’s Progress” was new, opinions about its worth varied considerably. In some corners of the music world, Stravinsky wasn’t modern enough. The composer who had revolutionized the 20th century with “The Rite of Spring” was by this point channeling the spirits of the 18th century, which did not make much sense to those who were following (or trying to follow) Schoenberg.

Theodore Adorno tartly dismissed neoclassicism as “traditional music combed in the wrong direction” (a great line, you have to admit).

Olin Downes, the New York Times critic, revealed the same sort of attitude reviewing the first Metropolitan Opera production of “The Rake’s Progress” in 1953.

Downes detected in the score “many different works which other composers were thoughtless enough to write before Mr. Stravinsky made his appearance.” The opera was accused by being “artificial, unreal and actually unexpressive … a study in still-life.”

Today, when we are awash in neo-romanticism, objections to neoclassicism may seem rather quaint. But it’s worth being reminded of how provocative this musical language once seemed.

Wolf Trap’s “Rake” does that in bracing fashion, thanks to a remarkable potency onstage and in the pit.

Eric Barry does impressive work as Tom Rakewell, the young man who deserts his true love — she’s not named Anne Trulovefor nothing — after being lured to the big, bad city of London by the demonic Nick Shadow.

With his boyish face, Barry captures the naive side of Tom particularly well, and he’s adept, too, at conveying the decline into debauchery. The final scene, after Tom has been turned mentally unbalanced thanks to Shadow’s parting shot, finds Barry especially affecting.

The timbre of the tenor’s voice doesn’t reveal the conventional operatic heft, but it’s solid from top to bottom. And Barry used his vocal resources with admirable nuance and a touch of sweetness. His diction is exemplary, too, no small matter when dealing with such highly poetic English. (There are supertitles.)

Craig Colclough charges into the role of Shadow. He nimbly reveals the character’s combination of charm and smarm, all the while producing a big, robust tone and animating his every phrase.

As Anne, Corinne Winters is a bit detached in her acting, but her singing has terrific impact, thanks, particularly, to the soprano’s deep, lush low register. Her account of “Gently, little boat” in the last act has a melting radiance.

Aaron Sorensen is sympathetic and sure as Anne’s father. James Kryshak exudes vocal and theatrical character as Sellem, the oily auctioneer who disposes of Tom’s worldly possessions. Anthony Michael Reed steps out of the vibrant, polished chorus (prepared by Grant Loehnig) to sing the few lines of the asylum keeper with a warm, promising bass.

In “The Rake’s Progress,” the opera ain’t over ’til the bearded lady sings. That’s Baba the Turk, the needy, demanding, facially hairy circus star Tom marries just to thumb his nose at the world.

Margaret Gawrysiak brings a plummy mezzo and abundant comic exuberance to the role, and also taps into character’s warmer side in the last act.

The orchestra does polished, vibrant work, conducted by Dean Williamson, who keeps the rhythms crisp, the pacing taut, but with plenty of room for sensitive phrasing in the lyrical episodes. Jeremy Frank handles the harpsichord solos with flair.

Stage director Tara Faircloth sets up the opera as a flashback from the asylum where Tom will end up. A few things seem forced (some business involving a poster of Baba the Turk goes on a little too long, for example), but there are imaginative and absorbing touches throughout.

Erhard Rom’s stylish set design, with its architectural and playing card motifs, is complemented by Rooth Varland’s vivid, era-jumping and occasionally gender-crossing costumes (the riot of turquoise in the auction scene is delicious) and Robert H. Grimes’ expert lighting.

The production effectively brings out the human qualities beneath the satire, the poignant strands woven into the brittle edge of the opera. The masterpiece status of “The Rake’s Progress” couldn’t be clearer here. The caliber of Wolf Trap Opera shines through just as brightly.

The final performance is Saturday at the Barns at Wolf Trap.


‘Curious Women’ delights at the Barns

October 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

‘Curious Women’ delights at the Barns.

Text of “Tales of Hoffman ” review.

August 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Baltimore Sun Web Blog

August 9, 2011

Wolf Trap Opera offers vigorous, absorbing production of ‘Tales of Hoffmann’

When it comes to opera in the summertime around this region, the most notable action is to be found in Northern Virginia.For four decades, Wolf Trap Opera has been exploring a wide range of the repertoire and periodically adding to it with commissioned works, all the while showcasing some of the nation’s finest young artists.

How fine? Just peruse the list of alumni scheduled to appear on an operatic greatest hits concert Aug. 24 at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center to celebrate the company’s 40th anniversary: Stephanie Blythe, Lawrence Brownlee, Denyce Graves, Alan Held, Eric Owens, James Valenti, to name a few. Quite a legacy.

The alumni concert, to be conducted by Stephen Lord, has something for just about everyone. There will be excerpts from operas by Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Dvorak, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Delibes, Johann Strauss, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Puccini.

Meanwhile, you can catch a perennial favorite, Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” in an …

effective new production from Wolf Trap Opera — final performances are Thursday and Saturday at the Barns at Wolf Trap.Every staging of “Hoffmann” raises the question of which edition of the score to use. The “integral edition” painstakingly compiled by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck is cited as the basis for the Wolf Trap production, but, it is not, as far as I can tell, entirely faithful to that ground-breaking scholarship.

Still, even allowing for the inclusion of popular numbers inserted after Offenbach’s death into the “Guilietta” act, this version struck me as basically persuasive, musically and dramatically, on Sunday afternoon. The spoken dialogue, rather than the sometimes clunky Giuraud recitatives, flowed naturally.

“Hoffmann” is a long work that requires potent singer-actors and theatrical flair. For the most part, Wolf Trap Opera delivered.

On the visual front, Michael Olich’s set design, with its smoothly sliding boxes, provided just enough detail to evoke each scene. Throughout, a nocturnal mood was sustained (Robert H. Grimes devised the subtle lighting), underlining the spooky flow of the story. Mattie Ullrich’s costumes added a mix of the sinister and the fanciful (some of them seemed to have been inspired by “Gangs of New York”).

Director Dan Rigazzi revealed a knack for momentum and for moving the large cast neatly in and around the small stage. I wish he had devised a more menacing entrance for Dr. Miracle in Act 2, a more telling entrance for the long-awaited Stella in the epilogue. But Rigazzi drew mostly natural, detailed acting from the singers, and that counted for a lot.

Nathaniel Peake tackled the daunting title role with considerable success. If the voice was a little tight and monochromatic at the start, it warmed up in short order; the tenor sounded remarkably fresh and sturdy at the opera’s close. Some of his soft singing proved especially telling along the way.

Instead of one singer (always a risky option) portraying all the loves in Hoffmann’s life, this production divvies up the assignments.

Jamie-Rose Guarrine went for broke on Sunday as Olympia, the mechanical doll, venturing way into the vocal stratosphere with vivid, if somewhat edgy, results. Marcy Stonikas, even more visibly pregnant than in the company’s June production of Wolf-Ferrari’s “Le Donne Curiose,” tended to stay with one volume and tone color, but she brought considerable fire to the role of Antonia. Eve Gigliotti sang ardently as Giulietta.

Craig Irvin, as Hoffmann’s various nemeses, used his robust bass-baritone artfully. Catherine Martin was another vocal standout as the Muse/Nicklausse. The rest of the soloists and the chorus made dynamic contributions.

So did the orchestra. Despite being chamber-sized, that ensemble produced a good deal of cohesive sound and expressive depth for conductor Israel Gursky, whose knowing way with the score yielded equally satisfying doses of gentle nuance and all-out, riveting passion.


A nice review of “Tales of Hoffman” despite misspelling my name… ;-p

August 10, 2011 § 2 Comments

Baltimore Sun Review (clicky)

I Run in Literary Circles

February 23, 2011 § 1 Comment

!!! Dept: Congrats to the totally awesome Linda Grimes (the love of my life) on her two book deal with TOR (Macmillan)! “In a Fix” (working title) is due to be released summer 2012 with the sequel released summer 2013.