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WNO Takes a New Look at Old 'Falstaff'

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Verdi's "Falstaff," which the Washington National Opera presented Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, is one of the great late works of art. Think late Titian: Each gesture is telling; each image is part of a densely layered web of brushstrokes. It's an old man's opera, with an old man as hero, playing the buffoon with, ultimately, a great shrug and a laugh. Its core is the scene at the start of Act 3 when a fat and bedraggled Falstaff, dumped into the river by the ladies he'd hoped to woo and sulking at the duplicity of the world, sits on the riverbank and sips wine as he gradually rediscovers the life force in the simple things around him: the joy of an old man sitting in the sun.

To counterbalance this, WNO offers a young man's production. Christian Räth makes his company debut as director, though he has previously worked on, or staged existing productions of, a number of shows here. It's an encouraging start. Much as Verdi deconstructs the idea of Italian opera buffo (that is, comedy -- "Falstaff" is one of only two he ever wrote), Räth deconstructs the opera's setting, creating a play-within-a-play conceit that opens with Falstaff, the actor, sitting in his dressing gown on a nearly bare stage. (We later see him donning his fat suit, even as he sings in praise of his own fatness.)

Indeed, Räth actually deconstructed an existing production: This co-production by Covent Garden, the Los Angeles Opera and Florence's Teatro Comunale began life as a straight, period "Falstaff" (with sets by Hayden Griffin and costumes by Michael Stennett). Räth has, in effect, taken the audience behind the scenes, so that everything until the actual seduction scene in Ford's house is played as backstage drama. This works quite well for the plotting among the characters that takes up so much of the beginning of the opera. For instance, Mistress Quickly (in a rather pale incarnation by Nancy Maultsby) appears to be the wardrobe mistress, who is costumed and pulled into the play to help Alice Ford (Tamara Wilson) and Meg Page (the promising Elizabeth Bishop) bring about Falstaff's downfall. Räth's concept doesn't work consistently, but it doesn't really matter; he offers a fresh, funny approach, and consistently clever ideas that keep coming in to override the indifference of his not-so-inspired ones.

Greatly in Räth's favor is his obvious sensitivity to the music. At times the staging showed an almost Mark Morris-like physical reflection of what Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the strong conductor making his company debut, was leading in the orchestra pit. (The orchestra sounded patchy, with particularly unruly brass, but Lang-Lessing gave an energetic, though not always sensitive, reading.) "Falstaff" is musically mercurial, with fleeting arias that pass in a few moments, anchored by blocks of intricate ensemble; and there was a lot of corresponding darting around onstage that helped the audience see what it was hearing. At the famously tricky part in Act 1 where the men's and women's characters sing in two time signatures simultaneously, a similarly intricate chaos reigned on the stage as stagehands moved sets into place and the characters milled about to get ready for their entrances.

And the concluding fugue, "Tutto nel mondo è burla" (which roughly translates as "all the world's a joke"), was adorned with visual jokes that both illustrated the complex music (starting by bringing the singers onstage one by one as they made their vocal entrances) and emphasized its humor. At one point the singers did a sports-arena-style wave; at another, when Falstaff has a solo phrase, he felled them all, as if parting the sea around him, with a gesture of his hand. Best was Räth's extension of an idea he had for the fairy scene in which, during Nanetta's aria (sung in clarion but undifferentiated tones by JiYoung Lee), he had a set of male "ballerinas" in gauzy white tutus, like the Ballets Trockadero, giving exaggerated pantomimes of classical ballet poses around Falstaff's prone body (Mimi Legat was the choreographer). Subsequently, in the final fugue, the six "ballerinas" came zooming across the stage behind the chorus, exactly in time to a whoosh in the music.

An adequate cast supported this appealing if imperfect production. The lack of sets in some scenes may not have done the singers any favors, in that the cavernous space tended to swallow up the sound. But that the level of vocal endowment was generally modest was demonstrated by the fact that the singers in the relatively minor parts of Dr. Caius (Robin Leggate) and Bardolfo (David Cangelosi) had the two strongest voices on stage. Timothy Mix, making his WNO debut as Ford, also had a reasonable instrument, though he still seemed a little unsure of how to make an impact with it; Räth gave him a nice before-the-curtain moment for his big jealousy monologue. Bishop also sang well, but Wilson, making her company debut as well, had one of those pretty, undistinguished voices that seems to be a couple of sizes smaller than it could be. Yingxi Zhang (Fenton) was almost too animated, moving through all the stage business with consummate aplomb, but a slight sense of rote, and singing firmly but a little roughly -- an ideal foil, in this respect, for Lee.

As Falstaff, Alan Opie deserves a lot of credit. He made a late-scheduled company debut when Gordon Hawkins pulled out to have surgery. Opie understands the role and knows how to make it work on stage. Vocal opulence is not his to command, but he can sing, and was a fine anchor for a production that, if it left certain things to be desired, particularly in the musical department, was certainly an entertaining evening at the opera.

Falstaff will be performed through Oct. 30.

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