After more than a decade’s absence Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel returned to the San Francisco Opera stage in the title role of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff”.
Unlike all other Verdi operas, and all others operas in the comic genre, “Falstaff” is dominated by a central, rather tragicomic figure, who interplays with nine other principals.
[Below: Sir John Falstaff (Bryn Terfel) goes a’ courtin’; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Over the past 14 years, Terfel’s interpretation of the roguish knight has become his signature role. He is closely associated with the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 1999 Olivier Tambosi production, in which he first appeared at age 34.
Eight years later (after Gockley had left Texas for San Francisco) Terfel appeared at the Houston Grand Opera in the Tambosi “Falstaff”. In 2013 it is Chicago’s production again, this time mounted for Terfel by Gockley’s San Francisco Opera.
Now in his late 40s, Terfel’s performance was powerful, both dramatically and vocally.
[Below: Sir John Falstaff (Bryn Terfel, right) browbeats Bardolph (Greg Fedderly, left), his associate from their days as a prince’s companions; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
He plays Falstaff as a melancholy figure, now down on his luck after the heady days of carousing with Prince Hal, who, as the English monarch Henry V, has abandoned his former friends.
Self-absorbed and suffering from a delusion that the female sex finds his enormous weight attractive, he takes it upon himself to propose (in writing) affairs with two of the married women of Windsor.
The Revenge of the Merry Wives
The wives Alice Ford and Meg Page, who discover Falstaff’s simultaneous wooing of each of them, are determined to humiliate him for his preposterous suggestions. Mmes Ford and Page proceed to trick him twice, aided by their compatriots Dame Quickly and Nanetta.
Ainhoa Arleta’s Alice and Renee Napier’s Meg, the objects of Falstaff’s desire, were Falstaff’s spirited antagonists.
Heidi Stober’s Nanetta sparkled. With many of the opera’s most memorable melodies in the love music passages with her beau Fenton and her elfin last act aria Sul Fil D’un Soffio Etesio, this proved yet another Stober success.
Dramatic mezzo Meredith Arwady made use of her role’s truly comic opportunities such as Dame Quickly’s feigned greeting of Reverenza when allowed into the obese knight’s presence. Exhibiting a rich contralto sound, Arwady made a strong impression.
[Below: the women of Windsor, from left to right, Nanetta (Heidi Stober), Alice Ford (Ainhoa Arteta), Meg Page (Renee Napier) and Dame Quickly (Meredith Arwady); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Francesco Demuro as Fenton proved the most effective balance between his attractive, light lyric tenor and the large War Memorial Opera House, arguably the best of the three roles he has sung here.
Character tenors Greg Fedderly and Joel Sorensen again scored plaudits for their comic routines, both well sung and funny. Andrea Silvestrelli’s sonorous basso and witty delivery was a fine addition to this carefully selected cast.
[Below: the men of Windsor, from left ot right, Fenton (Francesco Demuro), Pistol (Andrea Silvestrelli), Ford (Fabio Capitanucci), Dr Caius (Joel Sorensen) and Bardolph (Greg Fedderly);; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Debuting Fabio Capitanucci captured the spirit of the often bewildered, quick-to-jealousy husband, Ford, and dispatched his aria È sogno? o realtà nicely.
Staging Verdi’s Masterpiece
These events of the character Falstaff’s later life – more or less the plot of The Bard’s Merry Wives of Windsor enhanced by situations from the chronicle plays Henry IV Part One and Two – may be thought of as more a dark comedy than a typical Italian comic opera.
[Below: Nanetta (Heidi Stober, left front center) embraces Fenton (Francesco Demuro, right front center) surrounded by the the Frank Philipp Schlössmann sets for “Falstaff”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Except for Falstaff, who is the center of attention in most scenes, the entire opera is an ensemble piece, whose most typical moments are those in which the women together or the men together (or both genders in a large scale conertato) rapidly sing together.
With such rapid fire ensemble singing and the large orchestra the work requires, all would have come undone were it not for a seasoned conductor in the pit. Music Director/Conductor Nicola Luisotti again proved his mastery of a core masterpiece of the Italian repertory.
The Schlössmann sets filled the stage with oranges and red-tones. Orange was again a dominant color in the striking third act image od Herne’s Oak.
[Below: the scene at Herne’s Oak; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Tambosi’s staging cleverly blocked the groups of singers.
Always an imaginative director, I had previously reviewed his work at World Class “Manon Lescaut” – S. F. Opera November 19, 2006 and Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo”: Houston – November 2, 2007.
[Below: director Olivier Tambosi; resized image of a promotional photograph.]
“Falstaff” is one of the great masterworks of Italian opera. San Francisco Opera is offering authoritative world class performances of the work starring arguably the contemporary opera world’s most important interpreter of the title role.
There is no doubt that Verdi, approaching age 80, after decades producing works of genius for the opera audiences of the world, created a work that projects his final thoughts on what opera should be like.
The more one knows of “Falstaff”, the better one appreciates its abundant wit and brilliant composition.
No one who is a fan of Italian opera, nor of opera in general, should forgo the opportunity to see this great work as presented by the San Francisco Opera.