Dallas — Verdi’s Falstaff enchanted the audience at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House on Friday evening. Since this was the first time The Dallas Opera has mounted this comic opera, some audience members probably didn’t know what to expect.
“Comic opera” are not words that often go together, at least not as grand opera to close a major company’s season. These operas are typically tragic and about tear-jerky deathbed sopranos.
Falstaff is based on a popular character from three of Shakespeare’s plays—The Merry Wives of Winsor and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2—and set to music by the aged Verdi, with a libretto by Arrigo Boito. It was the last of Verdi’s 28 operas. He said that after killing off so many characters, it was time for him to have a little fun.
Fun it most definitely is.
The plot centers around Sir John Falstaff, a knight who has gone to seed along with his ever-expanding waistline. He sees himself differently, of course. To Falstaff, he is still the slim, handsome and dashing knight he always was. Rather, he is dashed. Reality does not even tip-toe into his awareness. What does peek in is his empty pocket and large bar bill.
He hatches a ridiculous plan to seduce two women in town who happen to be married to prosperous men, so as to get into their husbands’ treasury. He writes two identical letters to them and waits to see what happens. The two women are friends and compare letters when visiting each other. This sets the game, as they say, afoot.
Even though the show centers on Falstaff, this production is more about mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe's matter-of-fact portrayal of Mistress Quickly. Hers is the performance you’ll cheer most when the curtain closes. She is a staple at the Met as well as opera houses worldwide and owns one of the greatest mezzo voices in the opera world. It is dark-tinged, rich and beautiful with the power of a train whistle. Her Quickly, with her hands on her waist, projects her innermost thoughts and broadcasts what she intends to do next.
Mark Delavan’s Falstaff is terrific; he has a magnificent baritone and is very funny as the pompous and delusional has-been, but he has met his match in the scenery-chomping Blythe.
Angela Meade brings Alice Ford to vibrant life. Rather than being the proper church lady, she thinks that all of the hijinks are a hoot and even plans their revenge on the presumptuous and preening old fool. She has a perfect partner-in-crime in the vividly drawn Meg Page of Megan Marino. They are like giddy schoolgirls, hatching their plot to humiliate Falstaff and teach him some manners.
The real pair of lovers are the youngsters, Nannetta (Mojca Erdmann) and Fenton (Airam Hernández), who keep trying to sneak a few kisses among the shenanigans. They sing some beautiful music that has been described as “Indian Summer Verdi,” including some tender private lines that they ritually exchange when parting. Nannetta’s father, played with sincerity and not a little bravura by Quinn Kelsey, absolutely refuses to bless their union. One glance from Quickly tells us that she plans to fix that situation pronto.
A few other characters add to the comedy. The funniest are Bardolfo (Alex Mansoori) and Pistola (Andrea Silvestrelli), a worthless pair that are Falstaff’s hangers-on—but only when it suits them. Their bumbling Laurel and Hardy-esque duo steals the show whenever onstage. Robert Brubaker provides a slimy Dr. Caius, Ford’s pick to Nannetta’s hand.
Adrian Linford's massive sets imply the structure of the Globe Theatre, which was Shakespeare’s home turf. His costumes put us right in the Elizabethan era, along with Dawn Rivard’s wigs and makeup. Alexander Rom chorus work is fine, as usual. Stage director Shawna Lucey does justice to the physical comedy; if you’re not laughing loudly, you might want to check your pulse.
The star of the show is conductor Riccardo Frizza. With controlled but precise movements, he perfectly shapes the opera’s sometimes very fast tempi, while still letting the lyric sections soar. This is difficult writing for every performer; Falstaff is definitely an ensemble piece in which all of the parts of Verdi’s musical puzzle have to fit perfectly together. Frizza accomplishes this task without breaking a sweat.
All in all, this is a Falstaff to be savored for a long time.