Review: San Diego Opera's FALSTAFF a Moveable Feast

By: Feb. 20, 2017

Any audience member who arrived at last night's San Diego Opera opening of Verdi's Falstaff feeling a bit peckish would have left completely satiated after the delectable antipasto-to-pasticceria buffet offered up by the company's stellar, virtuoso cast and crew.

With debuts by Italian baritone Roberto de Candia in the title role, baritone Troy Cook as Ford, soprano Maureen McKay as Nannetta, and tenor Jonathon Johnson as Fenton, and return performances by soprano Ellie Dehn and mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti, the entire production charmed and delighted the audience from start to finish with sidesplitting slapstick, uproarious pratfalls and engaging portrayals of story lines depicting the pains and pleasures of both idealistic young love and disillusioned marital angst.

At the center of the action, capturing the stage at his every comic turn musically and physically, was de Candia's hopelessly egotistical yet sympathetic Sir John. Vocally he delivered impressively on every note and turn of phrase: strong-voiced and powerful yet ably displaying the droll subtleties of Verdi's final work. Dramatically he gave a virtuoso performance on a par with any of the top Falstaffs in recent operatic history and worthy of any leading opera house worldwide.

As his romantic nemesis Alice Ford, Dehn had no trouble sparring with de Candia. Her luminous soprano and virtuoso theatrical abilities were perfectly matched with de Candia's vocal power and comical skills. Their ironically tender amorous exchanges were a joy to watch: impeccably timed, riotously funny and vocally skilled.

Troy Cook made a notable debut in the role of Alice's covetous husband. His bitter protests of outraged cuckoldry and wounded ego were wholly believable and played to maximum effect, backed up by an elegantly beauteous voice that was somewhat lost in the lower registers but resplendent in the upper ones.

Soprano Maureen McKay's much-anticipated Nannetta did not disappoint. Every note shimmered with luscious beauty, and her peppy physical comedy was a pleasure to watch. The stage positively glowed with her presence. The interactions between her and tenor Jonathon Johnson were precious few, but the duo delivered charmingly in their mutual vocal sonorities and the intensity of their love was so touching as to inspire one almost to believe in the ideal virtues of true love.

Last seen and heard in SDO's April, 2015 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert, mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti (/bwwopera/article/BWW-Interview-Mezzo-Soprano-Marianne-Cornetti-Swings-for-the-Fences-20170131) won over the audience (and this reviewer) with her hilarious rendition of the pivotal Mistress Quickly. The difficulties of the role, with its many notes in the low register and physically challenging split-second timing, are often overlooked; Cornetti made it look and sound easy, with consistently rich tones and expertly played shenanigans.

Kirstin Chávez was thoroughly appealing as Meg Page, and Simeon Esper's Bardolfo was appropriately raucous and highly entertaining. Along with Dehn and McKay, Chávez made the gaie comari di Windsor a dynamic trio capable of taking on any male-driven challenge with alacrity and ease.

As Falstaff's foils Pistola and Caius, SDO mainstays Reinhard Hagen and Joel Sorensen worked together seamlessly with impeccable comic timing and made the most of their characterizations.

Returning conductor Daniele Callegari maintained a good balance between stage and orchestra in the nuances of the dynamically changing score. He showed great sensitivity to and knowledge of the subtleties of Verdi's late work, although some of his tempi felt unnecessarily rushed.

Much praise is due to debuting stage director Olivier Tambosi, debuting sets and costumes designer Frank Philipp Schlössmann, and lighting designer Christine A. Binder. Not one moment lagged in Tambosi's clever blocking - a demanding feat, given the constant action and high-speed, moment-to-moment changes - and the cast members looked as if they were gleefully enjoying every moment. The ordered chaos on stage during the laundry basket scene was riotous, well-timed and skillfully executed by principals and chorus.

The unit set was a dream: every component allowed for maximum movement within the paradigm of subterfuge, stratagems and maneuver required by the intricacies of the plot. The multipurpose trap door at the Garter Inn functioned ingeniously, the transformation from the inn to Windsor Park was imaginatively done, and the atmosphere of the forest, with its glowy, vivid sapphire lighting, was magical.

It was indeed a pleasure to see stage attire that was so well integrated into the plot. The women's costumes in jewel tones complemented each other beautifully, and Sir John's devilish red getup was riotous. Only the preponderance of white robes in the finale was a bit uncomfortable, given the current political atmosphere.

The overwhelming effect of the evening's entertainment was that of a brilliant, mature score by opera's then-reigning composer combined with dazzling vocal performances and lightning-quick physical comedy. Only a live performance can provide such a satisfying level of theatrical enjoyment.

San Diego Opera should be proud of this superb production. Certainly Maestro Verdi would have been pleased.

Photo credits: Robert Kussel, J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson