Opera Warhorses

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

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Review: A Fun-filled, Fast-paced, Finely Cast “Falstaff” – San Diego Opera, February 18, 2017

February 19th, 2017

The San Diego Opera opened a four performance run of “Falstaff”, Verdi’s operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. One of opera’s great masterpieces, “Falstaff” abounds in complex vocal ensembles, that require ten principal singers of great skill.

Roberto de Candia’s Falstaff

The production’s strong cast was led by the Falstaff of Italian baritone Roberto de Candia. Falstaff, deluding himself that he is a seducer of married women, is ultimately put in his place by the Windsor wives. De Candia gave a vocally secure, sympathetic portrait of the dissipated, self-absorbed knight.

[Roberto de Candia as Sir John Falstaff; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

De Candia was a student of basso buffo Sesto Bruscantini, who was one of the greatest of mid-2oth century masters of Italian opera’s comic roles. De Candia’s performance was in the grand tradition of Italian comic opera.

De Candia displays an affection for this iconic role – portraying a character who shows resilience in the face of the two separate (“fool me twice”)  humiliations that comprise the story of the opera.

Ellie Dehn’s Alice Ford

Leading the Windsor Wives’ defense against the Sir John’s schemes is Alice Ford, elegantly sung by soprano Ellie Dehn.

[Below: Alice Ford (Ellie Dehn, right, seated), plays the mandolin while awaiting the arrival of Sir John Falstaff (standing, left); edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

A gifted vocal artist, Dehn is one of the many contemporary international opera stars who are graduates of Philadelphia’s prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts.

Californians have been fortunate to have seen her perform multiple roles at both the San Francisco and San Diego operas [for the former, see, for example, A Beautifully Sung, Engaging “Cosi fan Tutte” at San Francisco Opera – June 9, 2013 and Review: Roberts, Jagde and Dehn in “Carmen” – May 29, 2016.]

Maureen McKay’s Nannetta Ford and Jonathan Johnson’s Fenton 

Verdi weaves beautiful melodies throughout “Falstaff”, much of it assigned to the lovers Nannetta (Maureen McKay) and Fenton (Jonathan Johnson), who are central to a sub-plot regarding Nannetta’s father’s determination to choose a different husband for her.

McKay, an alumna of the Seattle Opera’s Young Artist’s program and the ensemble of the Komische Oper, Berlin, was a radiant Nannetta.

[Below: Maureen McKay as Nannetta; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

McKay’s Nannetta, disguised as the Queen of the Fairies, leads an ethereally beautiful chorus of supernatural beings (actually, the disguised Windsor women and their allies) at the witching hour at the Oak of Herne.

Jonathan Johnson, himself a member of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center for Young Artists, was an engaging Fenton, his sweet-voiced Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola setting the mood for the charming beginning of the Oak of Herne scene.

[Below: Falstaff, in the costume of the mythical Black Huntsman (Roberto de Candia, right) has come to the Oak of Herne, expecting a liaison, only to frightened by what he perceives is a myriad of demonic spirits led by Fairy Queen, who actually is Nannetta (Maureen McKay, left) in disguise; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Nannetta and Fenton express their love for each other throughout the opera, but it is the Oak of Herne scene in which the two characters most vividly center the audience’s attention.

[Below: Jonathan Johnson as Fenton; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

I had previously noted a fine performance by Johnson in a smaller role in Chicago [Review: A World Class Cast for Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” – Lyric Opera, Chicago, November 13, 2016] and believe that Johnson, a leggiero tenor, is at the beginning of an important opera career.

Marianne Cornetti’s Mistress Quickly and Kristin Chavez’ Meg Page 

Mistress Quickly is an “over-the-top” role, which mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti pursued with relish. It’s been a decade since I saw Cornetti as Azucena [see Nicely Done “Il Trovatore” in Verdi-Friendly San Diego – April 4, 2007] in this theater.

Her Quickly, much of whose role lies low in the  mezzo register, proved to be another impressive achievement in Verdian singing.

[Below: Mistress Quickly (Marianne Cornetti, left) persuades a suspicious Falstaff (Roberto de Candia, right) that he is an object of desire of her Windsor compatriots; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Kristin Chavez, completing the quartet of Windsor women, sang the part of Meg Page.

[Below: Meg Page (Kristin Chavez) is the recipient of an undesired proposition; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Chavez, who had performed the role of Maddalena in another San Diego Opera Verdi opera performance [see Power Verdi: Ataneli, Vargicova Excel in San Diego Opera “Rigoletto” – March 28, 2009], fit nicely into the vocal ensemble of the Windsor women.

Troy Cook’s Ford and Joel Sorensen’s Doctor Caius 

Baritone Troy Cook was the wealthy burgher Ford – Alice Ford’s husband and Nannetta’s father – who, like Falstaff, finds himself outwitted by the four Windsor women.

Cook performed Ford’s big aria È sogno? o realtà, convincingly, expressing the character’s jealous rage.

[Below: Troy Cook as Ford; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

I had seen Troy Cook in the smaller role of Bretigny in Massenet’s “Manon” at The Dallas Opera last year, but the role of Ford is a meatier assignment, which he successfully handled.

Sorensen, a tenor known for his insightful realizations of “character roles”, proved a formidable Caius.

[Below: Joel Sorensen as Doctor Caius; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

This is my fourth “Falstaff” review in which character tenor Joel Sorensen assayed the role of Dr Caius. Sorensen adds a strenuous physicality to the role of the aged character, which Sorensen retains up to the final set of curtain calls.

Sorensen’s character tenor roles are much sought after by the San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego Operas. In San Diego, his recent performances have included Beppe [Much to Like in San Diego Opera’s “I Pagliacci” – January 28, 2014] and Spoletta [Review: A Top Notch “Tosca” from Alexia Voulgaridou, Gwyn Hughes Jones and Greer Grimsley – San Diego Opera, February 13, 2016].

Simeon Esper’s Bardolfo and Reinhard Hagen’s Pistola

Falstaff’s fellow rogues, Bardolph (Bardolfo) and Pistol (Pistola) were hilariously played by two artists familiar to San Diego Opera audiences, American tenor Simeon Esper and German bass Reinhard Hagen.

Although American-trained, Esper’s career has been based in Germany where his large repertory of character tenor roles keeps him in demand at opera companies in Dresden, Dusseldorf and elsewhere.

San Diego Opera audiences have seen him in a half a dozen roles in the operas of Leoncavallo, Massenet, and Richard Strauss, including a previous pairing with Reinhard Hagen in which both were Wagnerian minnesingers [see Wagner Knows Best: Elegant San Diego Opera “Tannhäuser” Sticks to the Story – January 26, 2008]

[Below: Simeon Esper as Bardolfo; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

It is luxury casting to assign the role of Falstaff’s companion, the cutpurse Pistola, to the basso Reinhard Hagen, who sings the major Wagnerian bass roles in major European venues.

[Below: Reinhard Hagen as Pistola; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Though Hagen’s career is Europe-based, the one New World opera company he has visited regularly is the San Diego Opera, where most recently he sang the roles of Ramfis [Latonia Moore, Jill Grove Outstanding in the Zandra Rhodes Mounting of “Aida” – San Diego Opera, April 20, 2013] and the Commendatore [ Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo Leads Strong “Don Giovanni” Cast – San Diego Opera, February 14, 2015.]

Hagen’s sonorous voice enriched the ensembles, while his Pistola provided an opportunity for Hagen to show off his comic skills.

Maestro Daniele Callegari and the Musical Performance

“Falstaff” has complexities that are expecially noteworthy. On several occasions all those characters conspiring against Falstaff (the opera’s other nine characters) are singing at once – sometimes in different rhythmic structures.

A “Falstaff” conducter must simulatenously assure that each of the individual vocal performances are in concert with each other, while keeping track of all the instrumental groups playing Verdi’s sophisticated orchestration. In the final scene, the San Diego Opera Chorus, whose chorus master is Bruce Stasnya, joins the fray as supernatural spirits that torment Falstaff.

[Below: the “spirits” (the San Diego Opera Chorus) turn the vicinity of the Oak of Herne into a fairyland; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Maestro Daniele Callegari successfully enlisted the musical virtuosity of the San Diego Opera orchestra, chorus and the ten principal singers, whose result was a memorable evening in San Diego.

The Olivier Tambosi Production

French director Olivier Tambosi staged the production, which he created.

I had previously reported on the attractive Olivier Tambosi production on two occasions [see Bryn Terfel Triumphs in an Authoritative “Falstaff” – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 2013 and A Second Look: Luisotti, Terfel Teamed in Musically Brilliant, Well-Crafted “Falstaff” – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2013.]

Significantly, the production sets were built in the San Diego Opera Studios. Designed by Tambosi’s frequent collaborator, Frank Philip Scholossmann, the sets and production were created for and are owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Final Thoughts and Recommendations

The 2017 production of “Falstaff” is the final production chosen and cast by the San Diego Opera’s previous General Director, Ian Campbell, whose tenure was from 1984 through 2015. Originally scheduled for 2016, it was delayed a year during the re-organization of the company.

The performance was of the high quality associated with previous San Diego Opera performances, and augurs well for the ability of the redesigned company to maintain the artistic standards on which the company’s favorable reputation worldwide has been based.

The performance’s opening night was greeted by a standing ovation from the San Diego Opera audience at evening’s end.

I recommend the cast and production enthusiasitically, both to the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.

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