Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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A Second Look: Luisotti, Terfel Teamed in Musically Brilliant, Well-Crafted “Falstaff” – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2013

October 21st, 2013

Having reviewed the  San Francisco Opera season’s first night of Verdi’s “Falstaff”, [Bryn Terfel Triumphs in an Authoritative “Falstaff” – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 2013] I returned for the fourth of the scheduled eight performances.

This second review gives an opportunity to highlight many of the admirable details of the production that I had not previously recorded.

[Below: Sir John Falstaff (Bryn Terfel, center) defends his henchmen Bardolph (Greg Fedderly, left) and Pistol (Andrea Silvestrelli, right) against a robbery charge; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


There are ten principal singers in the opera.

At opera’s center is the down-and-out knight Sir John Falstaff, a lecherous drunk with self-delusions about his personal charm and appeal (played superbly by Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel).

Falstaff’s company is comprised of himself and two has-been former traveling and drinking companions of the wild-oats-sowing Prince Harry (who, upon becoming King Henry V repudiated his old ways). Bardolph is sung by the always brilliant American character tenor Greg Fedderly, Pistol by the sonorous Italian basso Andrea Silvestrelli.

The bourgouis citizens of Windsor are represented by the Merry Wives – Mistress Alice Ford (Spanish Basque soprano Ainhoa Arteta), Mistress Meg Page (American mezzo-soprano Renee Rapier), and Dame Quickly (American contralto Meredith Arwady).

Windsor’s older men are represented by Ford (Italian baritone Fabio Capitanucci in his San Francisco Opera debut season) and Dr Caius (American character tenor Joel Sorensen), whom Ford wishes to marry his daughter Nannetta.

The younger generation consists of the sweethearts Nannetta (American soprano Heidi Stober) and Fenton (Sardinian tenor Francesco Demuro).

Luisotti and the musical performance

The performance began when Sorensen’s Caius arrived onstage before the music started. (Caius joined another early arrival onstage – a little boy, playing the innkeeper’s page, who soon would be enlisted in delivering Falstaff’s letters to Mistresses Ford and Page.)

Not only were Sorensen’s comedic skills enlisted, but Caius’ wide bowlegged gait throughout the staging of the opera obviously tested Sorensen’s physical endurance as well.

Then Conductor Nicola Luisotti (who had been seated out of sight behind the orchestra pit’s front wall) stepped onto the podium to conduct the swirling first scene in which Caius charges Falstaff’s henchmen of robbing him while he was intoxicated.

With quick motions of Luisotti’s baton, the fast-moving physical comedy (and splendid singing) begins.

[Below: the women of Windsor,  from left to right, Meg Page (Renee Rapier), Alice Ford (Arteta Ainhoa), Nanetta (Heidi Stober) and Dame Quickly (Meredith Arwady); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


As preposterous as is the idea of Sir John sending love letters to two married women, is the outsized reaction to Falstaff’s pretensions. A four woman conspiracy (Alice, Meg, Quickly and Nannetta) immediately plot to con him into a situation in which he will be humiliated.

Once Falstaff falls for the Windsor womens’ trap, they  fool him not once, but twice. To take the old adage to heart: fooled twice, shame on him!

Not content with the final destruction of Falstaff’s tattered reputation, the Merry Wives also are determined to undermine the dynastic stratagems of Ford and Caius so that Nannetta and Fenton can be married.

Capitanucci’s portrayal of Ford, the jealous husband, who has been enlisted in the plot to entangle Falstaff in Alice’s devious plot against the knight, becomes convinced that something actually might be going on between Falstaff and Alice.

Capitanucci’s witty facial expressions proved a true foil to the blustery swagger of Terfel’s Falstaff.

Capitanucci’s performance of Ford’s aria, wondering whether he is in the midst of a dream or if Falstaff’s conquest of his wife was really going to happen, was engagingly sung.

Capitanucci’s delivery had all the gusto of a rousing Verdi aria for an enraged lyric baritone, but with a strong dash of parody of the sentiments that  a Verdian baritone might emote.

[Below: Ford (Fabio Capitanucci, left) offers Falstaff (Bryn Terfel, right) a bag of gold, supposedly to seduce Ford’s wife; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


An Italian Post-“Die Meistersinger” Operatic Comedy

Several weeks ago, I had reviewed a performance of Verdi’s first comedy “Un Giorno di Regno” [Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists Romp in Young Verdi Comedy – “King for a Day”, July 21, 2013.], which was Verdi’s attempt to compose in the style of composer Gaetano Donizetti’s romantic comedies.

In an article I wrote as the program notes for the San Diego Opera’s 2013 season production of Donizetti’s “La fille du régiment”  I had suggested that had Donizetti not succumbed in mid-career to a fatal illness, he might have encouraged his younger colleague (14 years his junior) to continue pursuing the romantic comic opera, whose characters are more realistic than the caricatures in the earlier Italian comedies.

In fact, Verdi did create multidimensional comic characters in mid- and late-career  – notably, Fra Melitone in “La Forza del Destino”.

However, Julian Budden, the most authoritative expert on Verdi’s operas, suggested that “Falstaff'” incorporated Verdi’s mature thoughts on what Italian comedy could be, influenced by the example of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”.

Budden persuasively argues that the mayhem that ends “Meistersinger’s” second act obviously inspired the energy, layout and harmonic structure of  the laundry basket scene in which Falstaff is thrown into the River Thames.

[Below: the laundry basket scene in Verdi’s “Falstaff”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Budden’s point is not that Verdi’s work is derivative, but is evidence of Verdi’s ability to produce a complex, through-composed work that is as intricately constructed as the  scene of the “Meistersinger” riot.

Every principal singer and every instrument in the San Francisco Opera orchestra is engaged in this whirling scene, every element of which must be precisely timed, at exactly the right dynamic balance. Conducting “Falstaff” requires a masterful conductor, which Maestro Luisotti always proves to be.

Arwady’s Quickly, Arteta’s Alice and Stober’s Nannetta

As always, the contribution of Meredith Arwady, whose secure and powerful lower register makes her a natural for opera’s contralto roles, was memorable. She is an accomplished comedienne as well.

[Below: Dame Quickly (Meredith Arwady, left) persuades a disgruntled Falstaff (Bryn Terfel, right) that it was not intentional that he was thrown into the River Thames from a laundry basket; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Notable was the strong and effective portrayal of Alice Ford by Ainhoa Arteta, in her second San Francisco Opera role of the past four seasons [see also Domingo’s Swashbuckling, Cinematic San Francisco “Cyrano” – November 6, 2010.]

Nannetta was arrestingly sung by Heidi Stober. Deservedly a mainstay of the San Francisco and Santa Fe Opera seasons, Stober has excelled in roles in a variety of  genres. [See World Premiere of “Oscar” at Santa Fe Opera – July 27, 2013 and  Erin Wall, Mark Delavan Are Superb in Elegant New Production of “Arabella” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2012 and A Second Look: the Kaneko-Gockley Production of “Magic Flute” – San Francisco Opera, June 24, 2012 and Graham, Daniels, Prina Excel in Elegant, Witty “Xerxes” – San Francisco Opera, October 30, 2011 and “Werther” Re-invented, Yet Again – Francisco Negrin’s New Production at San Francisco Opera, September 15, 2010.]

[Below: Nannetta (center) is dressed in white costume as the Fairy Queen; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


“Falstaff” at the San Francisco Opera

I have attended performances of “Falstaff” at the San Francisco Opera for over a half-century [50 Year Anniversaries: “Falstaff” with Evans, Simionato, Stewart – San Francisco Opera, October 11, 1962], which have included performances by Bryn Terfel’s mentor, the Welsh baritone Sir Geraint Evans.

The previous performances were productions designed for San Francisco Opera by the Hungarian Elemer Nagy and Frenchman Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

The Lyric Opera production from Chicago, whose massive vertical spaces suggest our contemporary concepts of the Bard’s Old Globe, do not have the intimacy of either of the previous San Francisco productions, but contains many interesting features.

The ingenious clamshell stage, from which Falstaff ascends and descends at various times during the opera presents abundant opportunities for clever stage movement, as it opens or shuts. So does the ring of upper floor windows from which various characters (both principals and choristers) might be seen from time to time.

Especially effective is the great Harvest Moon which rises behind the silhouetted Herne’s Oak of the final scene.

[Below: the final fugue is sung by all ten principals at opera’s end; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]



Without reservation I recommend the San Francisco Opera “Falstaff”, with its strong cast led by Bryn Terfel in the title role, and with its excellent chorus (led by Ian Robertson) and orchestra (led by Nicola Luisotti).


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