Reviewed by James Karas
Opera Hamilton tackled a big one for its fall production: Verdi’s comic masterpiece and last opera Falstaff. The rich music and orchestration test the mettle of the best orchestras; there are some fine vocal passages but no show-stopper arias; the action takes place in five different locales that require five different sets including a set for Windsor Park.
How much of that load can a small regional company carry? In the case of Opera Hamilton, the answer is quite a lot. No doubt there were some obvious places where the production showed the strain of lack of funds and some issues with directorial choices. But in the end the production was quite enjoyable.
The thirty-piece Opera Hamilton Orchestra under David Speers was quite effective in tackling the score. The Opera Hamilton Chorus was not taxed by the score but it did its job well.
The singing was uneven but there were some highlights. Canadian baritone John Fanning played the fat knight of the title to excellent comic effect and vocal splendour. He has a fine, mellifluous voice that rolled out effortlessly and a fine command of the comic business of the lecherous and cowardly Falstaff.
His lechery has two targets in the lovely-voiced Mistress Meg Page (Ariana Chris) and the lively Alice Ford (Lynn Fortin). The name Mistress Quickly conjures marvelous images but in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor on which the opera is mostly based and in Falstaff this is a misnomer. She is another middleclass woman rather than a lady of easy virtue for pecuniary emolument as she appears in Henry IV. The three ladies sang well as they ran around comically conjuring tricks to humiliate Falstaff.
The best singing was produced by soprano Sasha Djihanian as Nannette Ford, the sweet and pretty girl who is in love. Djihanian has a sweet and pretty voice reflecting the role she is playing and she gave us some beautiful singing. Her lover Fenton (tenor Theo Lebow) was not quite as effective vocally and appeared more oafish than ardent. But when he sang “Dal labbro il canto estasia” and the two sang “Labbra di foco!” we heard some beautiful sounds.
Bass-baritone Jon-Paul Décosse and lyric tenor Jeremy Blossey were used for broad conic relief as the lowly servants Pistola and Bardolfo.
Canadian baritone James Westman played the jealous, scheming, stupid Ford who wants to catch his wife in flagrante delicto and marry his daughter to an older man. Westman is funny and fuming and delivers his Jealousy Aria “E sogno? O realta” with fervour.
Director Allison Grant takes a conservative and sensible approach to the opera. She eschews cheap gimmicks in order to get laughs. (for a funny opera, it has very few belly laughs). The humour does develop naturally and there is no reason for gimmicks for the sake of laughs.
Grant chooses to underplay the final scene to the point where it becomes almost static. There may be good reason for that but there is also a missed opportunity to generate energy and humour before the curtain falls. This is the scene where Falstaff is humiliated by the townspeople disguised as elves and spirits. Thrashing an old rascal may not be very funny and Grant did not find the happy medium between cruelty and humour and settled for a rather sedate approach.
The set designed by Troy Housie consists of a series of panels hanging from the ceiling and a few essential props on the stage. The panels are manipulated to indicate locale changes but don’t look for Herne’s Oak in Windsor Park. All is left to the imagination.
The costumes were traditional Elizabethan and they were rented from Malabar.
Falstaff is not any easy opera to produce successfully. With its lack of traditional arias, its fast movement and rich music, it is anything but an easy comic piece to sit back and enjoy. This production started slowly in the steely Dofasco Centre but picked up speed and energy in the more broadly comic scenes. When Falstaff got his first comeuppance and was dumped in the Thames there was genuine laughter.
Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi opened on October 19 and was performed four times until October 26, 2013 at The Dofasco Centre for the Arts, Hamilton, Ontario.