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.

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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.

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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.

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