It may be that, at least for opera buffa, all you need to put on a great show is a first-rate lead, a good conductor and orchestra, and, above all, a terrific director. The Virginia Opera’s new production of “Falstaff,” Verdi’s last opera, has all three in spades: Stephen Powell, with his big, expressive and agile baritone voice, as a rollicking but dissolute Sir John Falstaff; conductor Joseph Rescigno, who managed to juggle sympathetic attention to Verdian vocal lines with the hurly-burly of Verdian slapstick; and director Stephen Lawless, who tiptoed exuberantly just on the artistic side of the line that separates just enough from too much (well, maybe sometimes there was a little too much). The rest of the cast held up their end quite well, aided immeasurably by the directing.
The opera, which received two performances at the George Mason Center for the Arts, opened Friday to a house that was only about three-quarters full. But those who were discouraged by the weather missed a delightful evening.
Based on Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Falstaff” is a tale of greed and lechery undone by trickery. Sir John Falstaff, lecher extraordinaire (who spends much of the opera wheeling himself around in his wooden swivel office chair), is foiled and humiliated by a trio of ladies he targets for their wealth and physical attractions.
Soprano Elizabeth Caballero as Alice Ford and mezzo-soprano Courtney Miller as Meg Page tended to be seen sitting in a row sipping tea with contralto Ann McMahon Quintero’s Mistress Quickly (who traveled through the show trundling her ubiquitous tea caddy). Their timing was splendid and their conniving delicious.
Tenor Ryan Connelly was an obnoxiously starchy Dr. Caius. Weston Hurt, a little wooden as the almost cuckolded Ford, sang powerfully, and Jeffrey Halili and Jeffrey Tucker were fine and feckless as Falstaff’s henchmen, Bardolfo and Pistola. Amanda Opuszynski and Aaron Blake, the hopeful lovers in the subplot, provided one of the show’s funniest scenes, hiding in a folding screen while, in a case of mistaken identity, the rest of the cast waited to pounce on them. Except for the splendid final fugue, the evening’s weakest moments were in the bigger vocal ensembles, where coordination seemed to elude everyone.
In both the play and the opera, Falstaff, hiding in a large basket, is tossed into the river, and in this production the stage is full of baskets, their contents (laundry, by the looks of it) getting pawed through and tossed around in moments of frenzy. There are sight gags that work — Sir John struggling to fit himself into a basket, or running around the stage wrapped in the folding screen, or, in the forest scene, brandishing an ass’s head. And there are some that don’t — the guy who, from time to time, rides across the stage on a bike, or the pair in rugby togs who toss a ball back and forth during moments of chaos — and probably stray over the “too much” line.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.