Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Revelation of Salieri's Falstaff

Antonio Salieri’s Falstaff, ossia le tre burle
Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble
August 14, 2014 – East 13th Street Theater

Falstaff puts his moves on
Photo credit: Richard Termine / The New York Times
Lei: Who knew Salieri was so much fun? I’m not sure why he rarely gets performed anymore. It has often been said that if it were not for Mozart, Salieri would have been the greatest of his day. I don’t know about that, but experiencing his Falstaff (1799) firsthand sure made it crystal clear that the two composers were contemporaries. Salieri sounded very Mozart-y (or is it the other way around? Still, this opera opened nine years after Wolfie's death in 1791). Either way, we immensely enjoyed this opera as delivered by Dell’Arte OperaEnsemble. It was sheer entertainment that elicited a handful of belly laughs and kept us on the edge of our seats to see what came next. The musical range of the score was thrilling: stock-in-trade opera buffa comic arias alternated with passages of tragic desperation and playful romantic duets, all the while it maintained an airy lightness at its core that made this opera a truly a pleasure to discover.

A very '80s Herne the Hunter
Photo credit: Brian Long 
Lui: Salieri introduced Shakespeare’s larger-than-life loser-in-love to the operatic stage almost exactly a century before Verdi who famously turned to the same material at the end of his career. While the works of both composers proceed along the same plot lines borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Salieri’s version is by far the more streamlined of the two. For example, the love affair between Fenton and Nannetta is conspicuously missing here, and as a result the whole show skips along at a quick and sprightly pace. Other than the missing young love story, most of the major differences between the two merely come down to a change in focus.

Lei: While for Verdi the main focus is really the Falstaff character with his comic but also tragic sides, Salieri presents a Falstaff that (at least musically) is largely just comic. The tragic star of Salieri’s opera is arguably Mr. Ford, who provides an emotional counterpoint to the foibles of the great John Falstaff, especially in the first half of the opera. In Salieri’s version, Mr. Ford definitely has more airtime than he does in Verdi and seems to ground the emotional core of the opera with his numerous passionate arias of a distressed jealous husband.

Jealousy gets the best of Mr. Ford
Photo credit: Brian Long
Lui: One great scene of dilation in the Salieri score is the aria “Or gli affannosi palpiti” that lends insight into the inner-workings of the jealous mind. It bears an undeniably Mozartian influence – plaintive bars borrowed from Così fan tutte’s Ferrando crossed with the melancholic melodies of Don Giovanni’s Don Ottavio. Distraught and flustered by the thought that his wife could actually be cheating on him with the loose cannon Falstaff, Mr. Ford ponders his options. Director Louisa Proske stages this moment beautifully. With the house lights off, she places him in a single spotlight with his back up against a black brick wall in the back of the theater. All eyes are on him as he gives us a glimpse into his troubled soul. The music slows down a bit here, which allowed tenor Erik Bagger to really dig into the fuller potential of his youthful instrument, despite some of his vocal limitations during some of the faster passages. In fact, this is perhaps the moment in which he gave us some of his best singing of the night. I was thoroughly captivated as he progressed from pained despair to near frenzied madness only to decide that he will bear arms to seek revenge on his wife and her liaison and anybody else who might get in his way. It was a powerful scene that added depth to an otherwise light and jaunty comedy.

The fairies teach Falstaff a lesson
Photo credit: Brian Long
Lei: There was never a dull moment in Louisa Proske’s staging. Set in the 1980s, this stylized production was extremely effective in each of the simple effects it sought to accomplish. With just a few props and excellent direction, Proske’s managed to create a whole universe of suburban bourgeoisie (the Fords’ plush sofas) that clashed with Falstaff’s squalid decadence (one wobbly chair). Both scenes set in Mistress Ford’s bedroom were pure comic delight. Proske’s move to make Falstaff mimic an ottoman under a throw was simple yet charming. And the tables are neatly turned in a perfect act of poetic justice when on the second go around it is Mr. Ford who ends up under a pile of dirty laundry. The finale in the woods worked equally well. The leading ladies sport bunny-ears as they cajole a ridiculous Falstaff in his yellow jumpsuit and huge horns, before they go on to lead a daunting group of fairies in green ponchos and carnival masks to teach the horned buffoon a lesson. The work of choreographer Sam Pinkelton was also very successful throughout, with dancing that was high energy, accurate and in beautiful harmony with Salieri’s score, from the disco moves in Act I’s suburban house party to the fairies’ feast in the finale. There was nothing amateur at all about this low budget production, at least in cast A’s performance of it.

The irresistible John Falstaff
Photo credit: Brian Long
Lui: Shakespeare’s Falstaff is one of the bard’s most charming creations and baritone Gary Ramsey embodied him with panache. Though his Italian could use a little work, his acting was brilliant (and not surprisingly so, since Ramsey came to opera from the acting world). His Falstaff is potbellied and, with few exceptions, only ever dons the same light blue leisure suit and his signature canary yellow tuxedo shirt with its frilly front and a dashing bow tie. He is the self-absorbed creep par excellence. And boy could he shake his thing! Rather than accentuate the disconnect between his former life in the court of Henry IV and his new life in the provinces, Ramsey’s Falstaff in Proske’s rendition is out of place inasmuch as his whole sensibility is leftover from his salad days in the 1970s, an earlier era when he was potentially “in his prime.” He now finds himself a swinger stranded in the brave new world of the 1980s, amidst the working class stiffs of the suburbs no less.

Lei: After Falstaff, soprano Marie Masters in the role of Mistress Ford truly stole the show. Masters is a fiery and feisty force of nature. She owned her numbers musically, singing her devious wiles both alone and in duet with Mistress Slender, and she acted up a storm. Masters played the faux-docile wife, the slinky seductress, the devious schemer, not to mention the clueless German bimbo, and every step of the way her stage presence was a thrill to watch. She really brought the role to life like a pro, with equally excellent Italian and German diction.

Mistress Ford runs the show
Photo credit: Brian Long

Mr. Slender and his sweater
Photo credit: Brian Long
Lui: Playing second fiddle to Mr. Ford’s quasi-slighted husband, Mr. Slender owned in every way his first act aria “Venga pure il cavaliere.” Baritone Scott Lindroth embodied the dweeby 1980s suburban husband with an adroit comic touch. The aria features an extended passage in which Mr. Slender, who suspects that Falstaff is up to no good with the local women, mimics a flirty conversation between Falstaff and his own Mistress Slender. Lindroth’s voice was explosive yet full and round as he alternated between the male and female roles in the fanciful dialog that plays out in his mind, though it was particularly mellifluous as he impersonated with gusto the full-chested Falstaff, whom he imagines in the act of putting the moves on his poor, innocent yet intransigent wife. Mistress Slender and her husband both let me wanting to hear more from them. They do not get enough airtime to showcase their talents. Heather Antonissen pulled off Mistress Slender’s big first act aria, “Vendetta, sì, vendetta,” with power and poise. Her voice rang out in the intimate space clean and clear, her Italian pronunciation was excellent and expressive. I would have liked to see her talent showcased in another couple of arias. In her ensemble pieces and duets, she always blended voices nicely with the rest of the cast, especially with Mistress Ford.

Mistress Slender plots her revenge
Photo credit: Brian Long

Lei: Dell’Arte reconfirmed itself as a top-notch independent opera company. Everything they do is thoroughly thought out and beautifully executed. This is the third Dell’Arte production we see (after L’incoronazione di Poppea and La clemenza di Tito last year) and they yet again breathed fresh air into opera, with innovative costuming and staging all while remaining true to the core of the work and delivering very serious musical performances, at times even with sparkles of extraordinary brilliance and promise. The efforts of artistic director Christopher Fecteau to adapt full orchestra scores to the chamber setting are truly impressive, and allow this opera company to perform great works on a smaller scale – truly a gift for young performers and audiences alike. Can’t wait to catch their Macbeth this week and see how they’ll make Verdi fit into the tiny East 13th Street Theater.  

– Lei & Lui

The 1980s are back. And they're bad!
Photo credit: Brian Long

No comments:

Post a Comment