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Come and be charmed by Verdi's Falstaff
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Come and be charmed by Verdi's Falstaff

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Verdi's Falstaff
Through March 13
McCaw Hall


Seattle Opera's production of Verdi's last masterpiece, Falstaff, is a charmer from start to finish. It's a shoestring budget production, modified from its origin in the Young Artists' production in Bellevue a couple of years ago. Conceived by director Peter Kazaras, it is a perfect example of how much can be achieved with very little.

The apt, playful tone was set even before the opera began; from the moment the auditorium doors opened, the singers began entering the stage in their supposed street clothes (actually costumes) to begin changing into their opera costumes while greeting and joking with each other, all to the tune of some raucous jazzy recordings. The curtain never made an appearance all evening! On the back wall of the stage could be seen the "what, me worry?" face of Alfred E. Neuman of Mad magazine fame. (A white screen does lower to hide this back wall as the opera begins.)

Aside from Falstaff's lesson about the word "honor," Ford's monologue, and Nannetta's song near the end, there was nothing like an aria in this opera. Instead, we got an almost continuous stream of ensemble numbers that flowed into one another nearly nonstop. To those who complain about the apparent lack of melodies, one might suggest that they listen again. The trouble is that there are too many melodies, often lasting only a few seconds each, which makes them difficult to catch on first hearing.

A lack of arias, too many melodies, and a constant stream of ensemble pieces - therein lay the difficulties of this masterpiece of Verdi's old age, both for the first-time audience and for the conductor, director, and the rest of the production crew. The brilliance of the score whizzes by at such a pace that pulling it all together both on stage and in the pit is a huge challenge. Maestro Riccardo Frizza, conductor of Seattle's latest Aida, did a fine job. Many of the ensembles were extremely complex, including an eight-part "comic fugue" (Verdi's words for it) at the finale. The coordination between the orchestra and the various ensembles was excellent during most of the show. The brilliance of Verdi's orchestration came through clearly, even though Frizza kept the orchestra from swamping the voices.

Speaking of voices, anyone familiar with these reviews knows that voices are my passion, that I slight the production, story, etc. in favor of dwelling on the singers, and I do the discourteous bit of comparing the two casts. Falstaff is yet another instance where the Friday/Sunday matinee cast works better than the opening-night cast, most especially in the case of role of Alice Ford. Sally Wolf (Sunday cast) far outshone newcomer Svetla Vasileva, who oversang her part mercilessly, producing a big but not very attractive sound out of her tiny body. Sally Wolf, who made her Seattle Opera debut in a spectacular Queen of the Night (Die Zauberflöte) in 1987, was perfection, both vocally and dramatically. Alice Ford is a big enough part that this difference was enough to swing my vote away from the opening night cast.

And there were additional glories in the Sunday matinee cast. While the title part was very well acted on opening night and well enough sung, the part is a little high for bass Peter Rose, who had to sing too often out of his comfort zone. Bass-baritone Eduardo Chama (Sunday cast) never strayed from excellent vocal technique and sang with excellent top notes, all the while nearly matching the comic acting of Peter Rose. And, although the opening night Ford of Weston Hurt was far better acted, his voice lacked the clear focus and note-perfect articulation of Korean baritone David Won, who is making his Seattle Opera debut. Although Won used many carefully learned gestures, he lacked the more genuine emotional communication of Hurt.

The remaining singers were part of both casts. They included perhaps the greatest singer of any vocal range in the world today, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. Possessed not only with an astounding instrument but also with the perfect technique and supreme intellect to make the most of it, Ms. Blythe brought comic genius to Verdi's most hilarious creation. By the simplest means, she made her initial encounter with Falstaff the funniest bit I have ever seen on an operatic stage. She also proved a perfect partner in the many ensembles.

The six remaining roles, none of them small enough to be called comprimario roles, could have hardly been better cast. The young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, were physically ideal. Anya Matanovic (from Issaquah, WA!), part of the Young Artists Program in 2005, sang with a lovely, flowing tone and floated her long high notes perfectly. Tenor Blagoj Nacoski (from Macedonia) has a nice voice but needs retraining; his vocal production was flawed with a throaty constriction and a vibrato with a hole in the middle, making it impossible for him to sing a good legato line. The voice is fine; the technique is lacking.

Sasha Cooke, also formerly of the Young Artists Program, is a name to watch. Her mezzo-soprano voice is gorgeous and perfectly produced. Her acting left nothing to be desired. This was her main stage debut. We want more of her! The sidekicks, Bardolph and Pistol, were everything one could ask for, both vocally and comically. They were sung by tenor Steven Goldstein (NY, NY) and bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam (from Egypt). Dr. Caius was the ever-dependable tenor Doug Jones, whose physical antics remain undiminished.

The overall excellence of this production and of this season at Seattle Opera prompts me once again to point out that this is no minor company. When, as a student at Columbia College, I was able to attend the Met Opera as a standee 30 to 40 times a season, I did not on average see performances of this quality. We have much reason to be grateful in Seattle. I suggest a visit to www.seattleopera.com to view some of the videos of selections from recent productions. You'll find, among other great moments, a totally thrilling high C, begun by Lisa Daltirus as a pianissimo and swelled to a glorious forte (as Aida). It doesn't get better than that.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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