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Arts: Berkeley Opera’s ‘Falstaff’ Never Quite Takes Off By OLIVIA STAPP Special to the Planet

Tuesday January 31, 2006

The Berkeley Opera opened its 27th season Saturday with Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff. Written when the composer was eighty, this opera breaks out of the mold of his earlier works: first, because it is a comedy (of his previous 27 operas, 26 are tragedies) and second, because he abandons his trademark style of grandiloquent vocalism, and uses the singing voices almost as orchestral accents. In Falstaff, the dynamic rhythmic pulse is punctuated by only a few lyrical moments. The singers, with the exception of the central character, sing mainly in intricate ensembles. It is partly because of Verdi’s focus on mathematical precision and brilliance, rather than on passionate melodic line, that this opera has remained out of the mainstream repertoire, and is considered by many to be overly eclectic and lacking in spontaneity. 

Boito, the librettist, takes scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, and cuts and pastes them together with segments from The Merry Wives of Windsor. It is said that Queen Elizabeth, after seeing Henry IV, grew so enamored with that “huge hill of flesh”(Falstaff), that she commanded Shakespeare to write a play about Falstaff in love. Boito reduces The Merry Wives to about one half and constructs a composite profile of the loveable oversized rogue: a braggart, a glutton, a lecherer, a con-man always on the make, who lives by his lightning wit. Boito takes us through Falstaff’s ridiculous escapades; the consequences of his scheme to woo two rich married women in order to fill his empty purse. The women decide to punish the vain old knight for his insolence. Although tricked and humiliated, his spirit and his girth are undiminished. Life remains a joke; a joyous game. 

Above all, what is demanded to carry the opera, is a protagonist with extraordinary comedic skill. He must be able to combine the nuanced timing of Charlie Chaplin, the arrogance and cynicism of W.C. Fields, and the hauteur of Charles Laughton. I well remember the legendary portrayal of this role by the 65 year old Giuseppe Taddei at the Met: swaggering, grandiose, eloquent, sly, and supremely self satisfied. Not one nuance was missed. The gleaming ebullience of his manner made him, in spite of all his roguish deviltry, irresistibly lovable. Young artists who assay this unique and challenging role would do well to familiarize themselves with the works of past masters who have defined the standard of excellence, and who have had a direct link to Verdi himself through Toscanini. 

It is heartening to see how the Berkeley Opera has improved certain aspects of its performances, such as the orchestral sound, the costumes, and the general quality of the principal singers. However, attention to a few more things would enhance the quality of their productions. There is no excuse for blurry surtitles which make deciphering the text a real struggle for the audience, since suitable technology is available today without great cost. Even scenic elements ought to be able to be rendered with higher aesthetic standards in a company that has been in existence for over a quarter of a century. Further, the subtlety brought into the work by the genius of Shakespeare, Boito and Verdi, demands an execution with greater attention to a coordinated acting style for the entire ensemble that is appropriate to the character of the work. Falstaff, as written, begins explosively and takes off like the bullet train from Paris to Marseille; it is suffused with high-powered energy musically and textually. This momentum never lets up. Without physical acting, full vigor on stage, and carefully honed team work, the opera invariably stalls.  

The highlight of the evening both vocally and dramatically was the excellent Brazilian baritone Igor Vieira. He parodied the jealous husband, Ford, with vocal mastery, and precise Italianate style. He raged and fumed over the suspected adultery of Falstaff with his wife in the most farcical manner, perfectly timing gesture, text, and music. 

Jonathan Khuner, artistic director of Berkeley Opera, and Saturday’s conductor, was able to elicit a laudable, well intoned, performance from the orchestra and cast. The able ensemble included: Ann Moss (Nanetta), Jillian Khuner (Alice Ford), Katherine Growdon (Meg Page), Donna Olson (Mistress Quickly), Andrew Truett (Fenton), Jo Vincent Parks (Falstaff), Norman DeVol (Dr. Caius), Mark Hernandez (Bardolfo), Isaiah Musik-Ayala (Pistola), Tony Ambrose (Innkeeper), David Briggs (Robin). Lovely Nymphs and Fairies rounded out the evening.