If you want singing to send shivers down your spine, wait for "Tosca" or "The Abduction from the Seraglio" or maybe "The Turn of the Screw," which includes spinal shivers as part of its agenda. But to generate laughs, the Washington Opera's (and Verdi's) "Falstaff," which had its first performance last night in the Kennedy Center Opera House, will do quite nicely.
They are definitely belly laughs in this production -- appropriately enough, considering the hero's identity. The laughs begin a few minutes after the curtain rises, when Falstaff's servants start their mock duel with Dr. Caius. And they continue at a steady, rapid pace until the end of Act II, when Falstaff and a large basket of dirty laundry are dumped out of a window.
The humor is generally broad--perhaps overstated -- in this production, but this is a treatment that "Falstaff" can absorb easily enough. With a larger-than-life hero (if you can call him a hero), the opera's dramatic gestures fall readily into the same mode. In this production, for example, the laundry basket containing Falstaff is not simply dragged offstage; it is carried laboriously up a flight of stairs to be emptied through a second-floor window. There are glass panes running right down the wall so that you can see the body tumbling through its long fall, almost all the way to the river which is presumably running backstage. It is a longer fall than Shirley Verrett should be expected to take on Friday night at the end of "Tosca," but Falstaff reappears -- chilled, grumbling and bruised -- for Act III, so the river must be functioning all right.
Elsewhere slapstick, sight gags and exaggeration abound, particularly in the antics of Bardolph and Pistol (Richard Croft and Saverio Barbieri) but also in the dialogues Falstaff (Thomas Stewart) has with Dame Quickly (Joanna Levy) and later with Ford (Michael Devlin). Some sort of climax in turmoil and visual comedy is reached during Ford's frantic search for Falstaff late in Act II. He has raised a small army to help him hunt, and they rush about the stage, armed with scythes, rakes, hatchets, mattocks and other farm instruments, looking something like a peasant insurrection searching for someone to hang. The audience rocked with audible laughter on opening night -- something that happens rarely when opera is sung in a foreign language.
As for the singing, it was generally good, seldom outstanding -- though there were positive exceptions, chiefly among the lower voices, which also supplied most of the comedy. Stewart, in the title role, began well and grew steadily through most of the evening, reaching a splendid climax with his long monologue, "Mondo ladro," at the beginning of Act III. His tone was deep and rich, his articulation of the words splendidly clear, pointed and expressive, his emotional range wide and subtly nuanced, with body language carefully reinforcing the effect of the words and music.
Levy's portrayal of Quickly was very broad but multi-leveled; her lower register has great depth, dynamic range and expressiveness. She marshalled all of its resources (plus a mock-mournful facial expression and distraught gestures of her hands) to put a whole universe of anguish into her refrain, "povera donna." In terms of pure tone, agility and emotional impact, Devlin's Act II aria, "E sogno? o realta ?" was one of the evening's most impressive performances, intruding a tense moment of dramatic reality into the comic trickery of the plot and sounding, for its brief span, almost like something out of "Rigoletto."
Karen Hunt and Neil Rosenshein were a charming and modestly comic pair of young lovers, if not particularly compelling in roles that give them relatively little scope. Rosenshein's voice, on opening night, sounded attractive but perhaps a bit small-scaled for the Opera House. Patricia Wells seemed to warm up rather slowly in the role of Alice Ford but was good in Acts II and III, and Delores Pegler filled the undemanding role of Meg Page with no problems and no special distinction.
Cal Stewart Kellogg paced the opera with a proper briskness and kept the balances generally clear, though some of the ensemble singing was a bit muddled last night -- a problem that should clear up in later performances. The chorus sounded generally good in the musically exquisite and dramatically problematic final scene.
Kellogg's handling of the orchestra is subject to unfair comparisons, perhaps, coming so soon after Fru hbeck's remarkable "Carmen." Orchestrally, "Falstaff" presents neither the riches nor the challenges of Bizet's score, and Kellogg handled it with ease most of the time, supporting the voices and bringing up some vivid orchestral comments as specified by Verdi during moments when the voices paused. There were occasional problems of imbalance -- most unfortunately at the conclusion of "Mondo ladro" -- but they were rare and brief.
The production enjoys excellent sets and costumes -- a bit of lavishness made possible through coproduction with the Canadian Opera Company and a grant from corporate and private contributors (the Northwest Energy Company and Mr. and Mrs. John McMillan of Salt Lake City).