Estados Unidos

Santa Fe Opera 2: An Old-fashioned Entertainment

Jesse Simon
viernes, 12 de agosto de 2022
McVicar, Falstaff © 2022 by Curtis Brown McVicar, Falstaff © 2022 by Curtis Brown
Santa Fe, viernes, 29 de julio de 2022. Santa Fe Opera. Verdi: Falstaff. Sir David McVicar, director. Quinn Kelsey (Falstaff), Roland Wood (Ford), Alexandra LoBianco (Alice Ford), Elena Villalón (Nanetta), Megan Marino (Meg Page), Ann McMahon Quintero (Quickly), Eric Ferring (Fenton), Brian Frutiger (Doctor Caius), Thomas Cilluffo (Bardolfo), and Scott Conner (Pistola). Chorus and Orchestra of the Santa Fe Opera. Paul Daniel, conductor. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2022
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The myriad delights contained within Verdi’s final opera can obscure the fact that it is a remarkably difficult work to stage well. Verdi, with his usual dramatic economy, managed to compress a lot of action into a little over two hours, and any director approaching Falstaff needs not only the ability to render its rapidly-paced scenes with assurance, but also the light touch so essential to comedy. If its cast does not require voices of quite the same magnitude as those necessary for, say, Ernani or Il Trovatore, a group of lively singers with a feel for both the irony and warmth in Verdi’s score can make the difference between an average production and a great one.

The new production of Falstaff performed as part of this year’s Santa Fe Opera was a success on nearly all fronts. Sir David McVicar’s energetic, lightly ribald staging made easy work of the densely-plotted action while the vigorous musical direction of Paul Daniel and a strong ensemble led by the charismatic Falstaff of Quinn Kelsey ensured that the intricacies of the score emerged with absolute clarity. If the evening offered no grand recontextualisations of the story or novel insights into its familiar characters, it had all the verve and charm necessary for a first-rate entertainment.

Sir David McVicar’s staging treated Falstaff as a period piece – although it was far from slavish in its evocation of any particular period – and made few departures from the libretto. The action was set in a symmetrical two-storey space constructed from red wooden beams with staircases going up both sides to a mezzanine level; with minimal set changes it doubled as the Garter Inn and Ford’s house, and with the back wall removed and the addition of a large tree it was also able to pass for Windsor Park. The costumes were mostly a fantasia on puritan themes – including ruffs and capotains – which did not suggest the Elizabethan fashions of Shakespeare’s age so much as a generic caricature of the Early Modern world in which swords, lutes and Falstaff-sized laundry baskets did not look especially out of place.

Verdi: Falstaff. Sir David McVicar, director. Paul Daniel, conductor. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2022. © 2022 by Curtis Brown.Verdi: Falstaff. Sir David McVicar, director. Paul Daniel, conductor. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2022. © 2022 by Curtis Brown.

In its rough adherence to plot and setting it was an extremely traditional staging, but what it lacked in bold conceptual gestures it made up for in animated stage direction that remained attuned consistently to both music and words. It presented the work as a comedy of the broadest sort, and each scene offered its own assortment of winking innuendos and slapstick; if such moments were played directly to the audience for easy laughs – and they were, for the most part, successful – the coarse comedy concealed a far more disciplined approach. For much of the evening the stage was kept busy, but there were few wasted movements and almost no superfluous incidents: Sir David kept the action moving at a clip while maintaining a focus on the characters that allowed their relationships to emerge with effortless clarity. It is rare to see the second scene of the first act unfold with such fluidity – here the two levels of the set helped to keep the overlapping plots discrete – and even less common for the climax of the second act to maintain so high a level of comedic intensity without dissolving into chaos.

There were, admittedly, a few things that didn’t work quite as well. The addition of two silent roles, a woman and child with whom Falstaff apparently lived – it was left ambiguous whether or not the child belonged to Falstaff – offered extra scope for stage action in the Garter scenes but contributed little to our understanding of the character; after the vigour of the second act finale, the Herne Oak scene of Act Three seemed both overcrowded and less dynamic (although the wondeful assortment of strange forest creatures looked as though they were on loan from an early renaissance painting of the apocalypse); and the closing fugue, complete with dance steps and jazz hands, seemed too great a departure in tone, a cheese-musical ending to an otherwise consistent Shakespearean comedy. However such moments could do little to diminish the infectious energy of the staging as a whole.

Verdi: Falstaff. Sir David McVicar, director. Paul Daniel, conductor. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2022. © 2022 by Curtis Brown.Verdi: Falstaff. Sir David McVicar, director. Paul Daniel, conductor. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2022. © 2022 by Curtis Brown.

The Falstaff of Quinn Kelsey was (fittingly) both the evening’s strongest voice and most engaging presence. During the opening scene, sitting propped up in bed while surrounded by the bustle of the Inn, he had no problem establishing himself as the centre of the action through voice alone: when he announced that the Garter was his kingdom, he could just as easily have been referring to the stage itself. His tone possessed an authoritative weight and ease of projection that extended even to the role’s highest notes, but in the most frantic moments of the second and third acts he displayed an agility of phrasing that was almost as remarkable. While his performance was peppered with attentive inflections and detailed turns of phrase, he never crossed the line into overstatement or parody: his ‘Va vecchio John’ was triumphant, the subsequent scene with Ford was elevated by his infectious confidence, and in the opening of the third act it was a delight to hear his dismay overcome by the transformative power of the wine.

Just as Falstaff was lord of his small self-contained world, the Alice of Alexandra LoBianco established herself as the dominant force among the merry wives. She was very good in the first act, affecting high contempt for Falstaff and plotting against him with spiteful laughter, and even better in the second, in which she made her way through the mounting chaos with complete assurance. Elena Villalón was an ideal Nanetta, bringing an appealing clarity to her scenes with Fenton, and delivering a spellbinding song as the fairy queen. Roland Wood’s Ford was somewhat restrained in his first appearance and he seemed more convincing as the tentative Fontana than the suspicious husband; however his ‘E sogno? O Realtà’ built steadily to a peak of anguished jealousy. Eric Ferring delivered an elegant Fenton, notably in the brief solo scene at the beginning of the second scene of the third act, and Brian Frutiger provided the evening with an unusually assertive Doctor Caius.

Verdi: Falstaff. Sir David McVicar, director. Paul Daniel, conductor. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2022. © 2022 by Curtis Brown.Verdi: Falstaff. Sir David McVicar, director. Paul Daniel, conductor. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2022. © 2022 by Curtis Brown.

The musical direction of Paul Daniel was unfailingly energetic, but his reading also possessed a heightened sense of Verdi’s most illustrative flourishes: throughout the evening there were countless moments – the commentary of the woodwinds during Falstaff’s ‘honour’ monologue in the first act, or the swelling of strings at the arrival of the mulled wine in the third – in which the music did not accompany the action so much as describe it in exact detail. Yet the strength of the performance lay in its ability to incorporate these disparate moments into a balanced overview of each scene. The first act was never overwhelmed by the constant subtle shifts in mood, and the second scene of Act Two succeeded as much through the buoyant rhythms of the orchestra as the clarity of the action on stage.

In a production with such lively musical performances and such inspired direction it may seem ungenerous to look for flaws, and, indeed, the evening’s only obvious shortcoming was a sense that the staging was perhaps too self-contained and too unwilling to draw parallels between the action of the libretto and the reality of the modern world; certainly anyone more familiar with the opera might have longed for a staging that made greater efforts to remove the story from the safety and comfort of its theatrical setting. For anyone new to the opera, however, or anyone looking for a well-crafted, wholly undemanding entertainment, the Santa Fe Falstaff was virtually impossible to fault.

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