Resonance Works, collaborating with the University of Pittsburgh Department of Theater Arts, gave the first of two performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, last night, at the Charity Randall Theater in Oakland. The ambitious project offers an opportunity to hear the famous composer’s only successful comedy, which premiered at La Scala, Milan, in 1893, when Verdi was nearly 80 years old. He penned the sparkling and engaging music to a libretto that Arrigo Boïto adapted from Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” with a little of “Henry IV” added to the book as well. The story, set in Windsor, England, during the reign of Henry IV, tells the farcical tale of an aging and portly knight, Sir John Falstaff, and his thwarted attempts to relieve two married women of their husbands’ money, their revenge, mistaken identities, young love, and a mirthful ending.
Immensely popular in Italy and elsewhere shortly after the time of its premiere, the opera lost its audience appeal in a surprisingly short period of time, and fell into extended stretches of neglect. As the 20th century progressed, largely due to the efforts of the famed and influential conductor, Arturo Toscanini, Falstaff received numerous revivals, and today holds a respectable standing in the standard operatic repertory, but it never was, and probably never will be, as well known or popular as many of the composer’s more dramatic works. Various musical historians have pondered over the reasons for all this, while others have proclaimed the work as Verdi’s best. It probably isn’t his best, but it’s certainly one of his most entertaining operas, bubbling over with broad comedy set to delightfully orchestrated music that offers a number of opportunities for the display of beautiful voices.
The contemporary staging and “modern day” costumes hardly take anything away from this production, since the color and atmosphere of Verdi’s music is so naturally Italian, so masterfully “grand opera” in style and flavor, that it suggests early 15th century England about as much as his Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”) fits its Colonial New England setting. It is also quite a feat that the staging and direction so successfully brings a rather large opera to a comparatively small stage, especially when the ensembles and boisterous action are considered. Happily, the text is sung in Italian (with English surtitles projected above the stage).
Unlike the better known Verdi operas in several ways, the most surprising departure comes at the very start; there’s no “overture.” The orchestra sounds several vivacious bars and it’s off to the races. And what an orchestra it was that played last night. Reduced to a little over twenty pieces, the instrumental accompaniment was more than sufficient for the size of the theater, and consisted of highly skilled instrumentalists who did themselves and Conductor Maria Sensi Sellner ample justice. From the first note to the last, they played a major role in the success of the evening. They received a generous ovation from the distressingly slim audience, and deserved it.
Vocally, the cast is one of uniform excellence. There were familiar faces on the stage, as well as a few who sang in Pittsburgh for the first time. Naturally heading the list of newcomers was Benjamin Bloomfield in the title role. He possesses a baritone voice capable of great power, but finesse and subtle nuances are at his command as well. He’s rather young to give a visual impression of the aging schemer, but his acting of the part was finely honed, funny, and in the character’s other unsavory traits, his make-up, costuming and demeanor more than negated his youth.
Joshua Jeremiah, as Ford, is a Grammy nominated baritone also making his Pittsburgh debut in these performances. His voice is one of great strength and resonance, he possesses acting skills (both comedic and dramatic) to a great degree, and his appearance is commanding and quite agreeable to the eye. As his daughter, Nanetta, soprano Natalie Polito was the third newcomer, and proved a fine addition to the cast. Her voice is captivating, as is her stage presence and acting, and she sang “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio,” (“Now lightly borne from near and far”), probably the best known aria from the opera, charmingly, if somewhat cautiously.
Amelia D’Arcy, as Alice Ford, gave a sterling performance. Her ringing soprano, lively acting, and facial expressions were positively delightful. Mezzo-soprano Kara Cornell, as Meg Page, seemed to “live” her role, as she always does, and was another highlight of the evening. As Mistress Quickly, mezzo-soprano Brooke Larimer displayed a richly hued voice and nicely timed comedic ability. With Mr. Bloomfield, she shared the well known “Reverenza” scene, in which Quickly lures the old knight with feigned respect further into her friends’ web of revenge and comeuppance he so richly deserves.
A pleasant surprise was the young tenor, Benjamin Robinson, in the role of Bardolfo. He has gained materially since I last heard him a couple of summers ago. His voice has grown in strength and quality, he displays more confidence, and his facial byplay and acrobatic acting of the part were fun additions to an impressive vocal performance. His antics with Matthew Scollin, the reliable, versatile and powerfully voiced bass-baritone, as Pistola, were among the most entertaining highlights of the evening.
Tenors Christopher Lucier, as Fenton, the young man Nanetta loves, and Joseph Gaines, as Caius, the man her father wants her to love, were talented additions to the large cast, and the ensemble sang the small choruses quite effectively.
The only thing missing from the performance were bodies in seats. The theater was maybe half filled. Now, more than ever, the arts need and deserve financial support. And this operatic endeavor on the part of Resonance Works most decidedly deserves capacity patronage. Only one more performance will be given, tomorrow afternoon at 3. Take Mom, a friend, anybody – to a musical treat that they’re not likely to forget any time soon. Visit Resonance Works for tickets, a complete synopsis, cast biographies and more.
The Production Team for Falstaff –
Conductor/Producer, Maria Sensi Sellner; Stage Director, Stephanie Havey; Production Manager, Brennan Sellner; Stage Manager, Tina Shackleford; Scenic Designer, Gianni Downs; Lighting Designer, Kate Devlin Matz; Costume Designer, Karen Gilmer; Assistant Conductor, Jeffrey Klefstad; Chorus Master, Joel Goodloe; Rehearsal Accompanist, Uliana Kozhevnikova; Orchestra Manager, Ryan Leonard; Assistant Stage Managers, Rachel Sinagra and Cassandra Canavan; Scenic Charge Artist & Assistant Scenic Designer, Megan Bresser.
Photography – Alisa Innocenti