It’s a luxury to see a big opera in a small theater. There’s a sense of extravagance to Wolf Trap Opera Company’s “Falstaff,” which opened at the Barns on Friday night. The singers’ voices fill the house, while the audience sits close enough to them to pick up on the lift of an eyebrow or an expression of deadpan confoundedness. “Falstaff,” Verdi’s final opera, is a chamber opera on a grand scale, and to see it produced in a chamber-opera-size space, with voices that are right for the parts, was a lot of fun.
You don’t necessarily expect that a company specializing in young singers is going to be able to field a “Falstaff” cast. The title role of the fat knight is generally seen as the province of veteran bass-baritones who can bring poignancy to, for instance, the great Act III monologue when the bedraggled old man, fresh from being dumped into a ditch by the putative object of his affections, vents his spleen — on the world, his gray hair and his aging body — before being gradually restored to good spirits by the simple act of drinking wine and sitting in the sun.
But Craig Colclough — the Commendatore in last summer’s “Don Giovanni” and the title character in this production — and Tomer Zvulun, who directed that show as well as this one, proved to be strong in just such details, elevating a fairly conventional conception of the character into quite a memorable portrayal. You’ve seen other Falstaffs like Colclough’s before — a man in a fat suit with a frizzy, balding wig — but Colclough did it so consummately that it was hard to believe the singer is actually a young man. The delicacy and relish with which Falstaff peeled a hard-boiled egg — admiring it, flicking bits of shell onto a plate balanced atop his tummy at approximately the level of his chin, then consuming it — spoke volumes about his appetites. Colclough backed up the acting with a strong, expressive voice. There was occasional patchiness in the line when he went up into the upper middle part of his voice, but this was counterbalanced by a resounding top.
Context is everything: A couple of singers I’ve heard before seemed here to come into their own. Norman Garrett, an alum of the Domingo-Cafritz program, was perfectly fine but unremarkable in Wolf Trap’s “Il Viaggio a Reims” earlier this summer, but here he was imposing both vocally and physically as Ford, the husband of one of the women Falstaff is pursuing. And the promise and earnestness that I heard in the recital of the young tenor Matthew Grills in April were all evident to much better effect in his Fenton, who in type evoked the hero of a 1920s movie.
He was paired with a Nannetta who was in every sense slightly larger than he: Mireille Asselin sang this soubrette role with assurance and warm vocal color, emphasizing Grills’s callow naivete. But at the end, when Ford grudgingly accepts that Nannetta has married Fenton rather than the suitor he wanted for her, Zvulun had Fenton spontaneously throw his arms around Ford’s belly in childlike glee, a gesture that made me fall in love with this childlike character. Ford, with a look of icy resignation, gave Fenton — who came up to his shoulder, if that — a few stiff pats before disengaging him.
This “Falstaff’s” weakness lay in the execution of its ensembles. This opera involves a lot of tightly woven vocal interaction, and some of this just fell flat; Dean Williamson, the conductor, didn’t seem to have the complexities altogether in hand. The ensemble of women was made up of strong individual singers: Tracy Cox, who sang Alice, has a big impressive soprano; Margaret Gawrysiak, the mezzo who sang Mistress Quickly, has become a familiar face in this area because of several appearances at Wolf Trap and the Castleton Festival; and Carolyn Sproule was a pretty Meg Page. But they didn’t blend as cohesively as the men, whose ranks were rounded out by Aaron Sorensen and Brenton Ryan, looking convincingly unwashed and having evident fun as Falstaff’s henchmen Pistola and Bardolfo, respectively, as well as Juan José de León, who was less successful as a slightly overdone Dr. Caius — the one false step in Zvulun’s concept — than he was as Il Conte di Libenskof in “Il Viaggio a Reims.”
It doesn’t take a fortune to stage a good Falstaff; Erhard Rom’s simple wood-paneled set was as evocative as much more complex scenery I’ve seen. Nor does a director have to yield to the temptation of a concept production. Zvulun did, admittedly, introduce a deliberate chronological ambiguity by setting the scenes at the Garter Inn in the 16th century (presided over by a large portrait of the ruddy fat knight), while having the costume designer Vita Tzykun deck out the women in Victorian-era garb (their scenes dominated by an image of Verdi himself). The two-sided portrait was then destroyed in the third act, presumably representing the breakdown of the old order, of preconceptions, of definitions — whatever. I care less about his concept than his storytelling and his sense of character, and I came away from this production with a healthy respect for both.
will be performed at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Wednesday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m.