Vocalist - Baritone, Symphony Pops
Falstaff, New York City Opera, 3/19/08
In March 19, New York City Opera revived Verdi's final work in Leon Major's 1998 production, originally mounted at Glimmerglass. The evening yielded an enjoyable if largely unmemorable Falstaff. Major's choice of relative simplicity is still pleasing. John Conklin designed the distinguished sets and costumes; the women sport bright colors, the men chiefly earth tones. Having Falstaff receive "Signor Fontana" and Dame Quickly in a spare yet chaotic bedroom is not ideal, but the scenes at the Fords' house evoke Rembrandt and Vermeer. The concluding forest alludes to Caspar David Friedrich, with a bright, cold moon and barren trees; the conspirators' props and costumes wink toward Hieronymus Bosch. In Cooperstown, the Flemish-tinged lighting looked spectacular, but Pat Collins couldn't match the effects in the less tractable State Theatre. The main comedown -- both from Major's original staging and from the comic masterpiece Verdi and Boito crafted -- was the incessant indicating, telegraphing, sight gags and pratfalls that NYCO's revival director, Albert Sherman, poured over the opera's events like a bucket of candy corn.

While a veteran basso buffo rather than the prescribed baritone, Jan Opalach cannily managed to suggest most of the resonance Falstaff needed, though his falsetto is a little creaky. If rarely aristocratic, he certainly made the old rogue likable, winning the audience to his side. The evening's best performance -- beautiful tone, persuasive phrasing, clearheaded dramatic acumen -- came from Stephen Powell; there can't be many better Fords around. Why has the Met ignored this excellent baritone for a decade? Pamela Armstrong, a gracious Alice, provided some lovely singing in her limpid middle and soaring upper registers. (The intriguing regret at Falstaff's treatment by the crowd that Amy Burton registered at Glimmerglass has evidently vanished from the staging's playbook.) As often, Ursula Ferri proved worth seeing and hearing, although her lean, top-short contralto is not an ideal instrument for Quickly's music. Native-quality Italian always helps, and she's a shrewd, amusing stage artist, even if Sherman reduced her Act II scene with Falstaff to repeated cleavage jokes out of The Sunshine Boys. Anna Skibinsky (Nannetta) fielded a bright soubrette where a steady light lyric is needed; perhaps nervous, she could not attack cleanly or float the crucial high As in the lovers' repeated exchanges. She rallied markedly for the gossamer final song, but her words remained indistinct throughout. John Tessier's plausibly romantic Fenton offered improved Italian and a well-traced line, if slightly narrow timbre. Heather Johnson offered an alert, pleasing Meg, making her fine mezzo heard in the dazzling ensembles.

The evening began with the house's dreaded amplification seemingly turned way up; Joel Sorenson's Dr. Caius, thus made louder, moved beyond incisive to deafening. As a victim of -- or collaborator in -- Sherman's antic exaggerations, Sorenson, lurching and staggering was outdone only by the faint-sounding Bardolfo of Jeffrey Halili, whose uningratiating hyperactivity extended to the fugal finale, in which he jumped up and down, hands aflutter. By contrast, bass Eric Jordan (Pistola) offered some of the healthiest vocalism onstage. As a student, from a much less favored seat, I heard the not especially opulent voices of Donald Gramm, Elizabeth Hynes and Bruce Reed score big unamplified in this music; why not afford the current singers the same chance?

In the pit was music director George Manahan, other than Powell the only 1998 veteran. The performance he elicited was quite decent, with few audible mistakes even in the brass, which often bedevils Falstaff early in its runs. But Verdi's quicksilver score demands more than "quite decent"; and the general sound was too muddied, lacking in clarity of detail.
David Shengold, Opera News
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