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Opera review: Verdi's transformative Falstaff hits all right notes with Opera Hamilton

By Open Submission on October 23, 2013

Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff is popping up all over the place this season. In Toronto, New York, at Opera Hamilton and elsewhere, companies are choosing the maestro’s final work to salute his bicentenary.

Ironies abound. First that this icon of Italian opera would choose The Merry Wives of Windsor (with nods to the historic Henrys IV and V), the only comedy Shakespeare set in his native England (he far preferred Italy as the scene for mirth and merriment). Second is that Verdi almost completely transformed as a composer in his final masterpiece.

What Verdi’s fans love about Verdi is missing from Falstaff. The dark agonies of emotion swathed in sumptuous melodies, rapturously spread over lingering arias that organ grinders of the street made into instant chart-toppers just aren’t there.

Falstaff is a virtuoso ensemble piece through-sung like Wagner and yet as light, brisk and airily headlong as Mozart. Precision of the ensemble singing is essential, as the piece is complicated to say the least.

Of course there is melody, and very Verdant melody at that, but it is strewn and scattered about like blossoms from a basket in a bucolic peasant dance and given no time to tear at any heartstrings, let alone climb any pop charts.

Opera Hamilton in opening its 34th season with this transformative work, hits all the right notes.

John Fanning
John Fanning

Baritone John Fanning leads a superb ensemble cast in a towering performance in the title role.

His voice is enormous in the intimate home of Theatre Aquarius and it is full of light and shading that make it a brilliantly expressive instrument, one that Fanning’s excellent acting uses to the fullest.

No mere fool he, but a flawed titan who climbs pride’s heights only to fall again and again but who can scatter the little people tormenting him with a single bellow.

Soprano Lynne Fortin all but rolls up the stage and takes it home with her with a performance of Mistress Ford so accomplished it seems effortless. She is complemented wonderfully by James Westman’s sumptuous voice and raging jealousy as her husband Mr Ford.

Ariana Chris’s Mistress Meg Page and Lynne McMurtry’s Dame Quickly fit into the “merry wives” roles as snugly as nesting tables with beautifully sung and superbly acted performances.

Two young singers who we’ll be hearing a great deal of in the future are soprano Sasha Djihanian and tenor Theo Lebow as Nannetta and Fenton. Their stolen kisses and cuddles provide the love interest as opposed to the lust interest all around them. Djihanian’s aria in the Windsor woods is a thing of enchantment.

Providing all the slapstick and hilarity needed are Jean-Paul Decosse as Pistola, Jeremy Blossey’s Bardolfo and James McLennan’s Dr. Caius.

Mason Greer’s Robin as Falstaff’s page is a delight, as are all the little goblins and fairies infesting Windsor’s woods.

Troy Hourie’s starkly simple set and Paul Cegys’ lighting take care of the bare necessities and stage director Allison Grant on stage. Opera Hamilton general director David Speers keeps things fizzing along at a brisk pace in the orchestra pit. Alas the pit can’t match the precision of that fine ensemble cast on stage.

Falstaff is also a bit jarring to modern sensibilities, rather like Zerlina’s “Batti batti” (hit me, hit me) aria in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It is plain to us now that fatso (to quote the surtitles) Falstaff is being mercilessly bullied to the extreme delight of all, and a little unnerving to note that the only contemporary event in the piece is the same sex marriage (even if inadvertent) of Bardolpho and Dr. Caius.

The passage of time does the strangest things.

The Opera Hamilton production of Falstaff continues Thursday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Dofascso Centre for the Arts, 190 King William St, Hamilton. Call 905-527-7627 ext. 236 or 221.

Hugh Fraser
is a former staff music critic with the Hamilton Spectator

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