'Falstaff': From Russia, With Updates

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007

Giuseppe Verdi's final opera, "Falstaff," has the metabolism of a hummingbird. Gone are the lengthy declamatory arias with which the composer made his name (the closest thing the title character has to a solo number is less than a minute long), replaced instead by rushing, mercurial musical drama that alights for a moment, then flies away. It is less a traditional Italian opera than a deft and unfailingly elegant musical reconstitution of a play -- two of them, in fact, as Arrigo Boito cobbled together his libretto from Shakespeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor" and "Henry IV."

One may wonder why it was thought necessary to import the Kirov Opera's "Falstaff" all the way from St. Petersburg, when neither the work nor the genre is a specialty of the troupe and the opera itself is hardly unfamiliar to American audiences. I'd rather see and hear this company in material to which it brings unique authority -- namely, the vast and beautiful Russian repertory. That said, "Falstaff" is still "Falstaff" and there were many happy moments in the Kirov's production, which opened Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Edem Umerov made an unusually trim Falstaff (the character's much bragged-about potbelly seemed pretty much standard issue for men past the Speedo limit). If Umerov's tone grew somewhat harsh in strenuous passages, his singing was generally subtle and sometimes endearingly tender and charming.

Tatiana Pavlovskaya sang with intensity and vocal luster as Alice, with Olga Trifonova a lyrical, sweet-toned Nanetta. Vasily Gerello made a vivid, visceral, believably angry Ford. Andrey Ilyushnikov's clear tenor voice sounded a size too small for the role of Fenton (he was a last-minute replacement for Daniil Shtoda). Anna Kiknadze was a funny, full-hearted Dame Quickly and Elena Sommer made an appealing Meg. There was eager, energetic support from Yury Vorobyev, Vasily Gorshkov and Andrey Popov.

The stage direction, by Kirill Sererennikov, was imaginative, but sometimes seemed little more than that, with negligible connection to the human comedy it was supposed to represent. I loved the moment when the curtain rose on Act 3 and we were suddenly in a drive-in movie park, surrounded by closed-off cars, and watching -- of all things! -- Tod Browning's "Freaks" on the silent screen. It was a great image, no doubt about it, but I have no idea what it had to do with "Falstaff."

This is an unusually busy opera to begin with and Serebrennikov grafted on so much frenzied activity that a first-time viewer would likely have been quickly befuddled. I have no special animus towards modernist updatings of classic operas -- when they work, they work -- but the flashing neon lights, the gleaming hair-dryers, the sex-for-sale come-on from a model who seemed to have squirmed right out of a seedy back street in Hamburg or London's Soho seemed little more than hip graffiti in this particular case.

Valery Gergiev's conducting was fast, loud and sometimes very exciting. The production will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 7:30.

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