Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Falstaff at Opera Hamilton

I went to see Verdi's comic masterpiece, Falstaff, on Tuesday night. The buzz from the Spec columnist and online blogs was that it was a great show, but I'm sceptical and wasn't sure, based on my experience with other OH productions, what to expect.

John Fanning with Falstaff padding

What I got was a wonderful theatrical and musical experience. In this smallish theatre with a thirty-one piece orchestra the opera came off almost as a chamber piece from near the middle of Row E.

I was disappointed to see such a sparse crowd, especially since OH continues to make tickets to these Tuesday performances available for $30 on WagJag. There are two more performances (Thursday, Oct. 24 and Saturday the 26th) and if there's any possibility of getting to one of them I'd encourage you enthusiastically, but you won't get in for 30 bucks.

Falstaff is pronouncedly unlike any of Verdi's other operas. Verdi took a 16 year break after Aida, wrote Otello and then didn't write Falstaff until 6 years after that, at the age of 80. I wonder what Verdi had been listening to which resulted in the extraordinary solo ensemble writing which is so different from that of his other operas.

The principal demand in staging this opera, is to move the singers around on stage and provide interesting things for them to do while, at the same time, positioning them such that they can always see the conductor because so much of the music is complex and moves so quickly. The men's and the women's parts are often written as two teams in the numerous ensembles, sometimes scooting along simultaneously in different metres. It's quite possible to solve the problem with a static staging in which the players find their mark and stand on it. That was not the case last night.

Allison Grant's staging was detailed and followed, for the most part, Boris Godovsky's axiom that the movement in opera should proceed from the rhythm and structure of the music. There was lots of appropriate comic stage business but I didn't find that it distracted from the singing.The performers were always in sync which tells me that the stage director understood this challenge.

This is an ensemble piece and the ensemble singing was impressive. Moreover, the casting was appropriate both from a physical and vocal standpoint, and the voices complemented one another.

I didn't much like the spartan set which reminded me of community theatre. It got tiresome to see fully costumed people hiding behind parts of the set and laundry on a line. On the other hand, the entire production would probably fit in a box van. It is usually better to budget for really good singers and instrumentalists than elaborate sets.

Dundas baritone John Fanning sang the fat knight. He's got a big baritone voice and has sung the Dutchman in Der fliegende Höllander which is usually cast with a bass-baritone so that tells you something. He's sung Wotan in the Das Ring des Niebelungen, Mandryka In Strauss's Arabella (at the Met) and the villains in Les Contes de Hoffman among numerous other leading roles in major houses. Fanning had a really good night showing lots of different colours and dynamics in his singing and his top notes became freer as the evening went on.

James Westman, as Ford/Fontana, provided an excellent foil to Fanning's Falstaff. We last heard him at OH as Conte de Luna in Trovatore and I wondered whether there'd be sufficient contrast between his baritone voice and Fanning's. Fanning, the older singer who's sung lots of big German roles, has a broader, more mature sound and Westman's voice seems positively lyric in contrast. Excellent casting by David Speers and his team.

Soprano Lynn Fortin anchored the women's ensemble and was excellent both in her vocalizations and acting. It's a peculiar fact that neither Alice Ford or Meg Page (sung capably by Ariana Chris) has neither an aria nor a substantial duet to sing. This didn't prevent Fortin from holding the stage and the audience's attention in her scenes.

Lynne McMurtry expertly handled the role of Dame Quickly. James McClennan was an aptly blustering and vocally strong Dr. Caius. Jon Paul Décosse (Pistola) and Jeremy Blossey (Bardolfo) both sang excellently and played the characters broadly with lots of comic interplay.

Sasha Dijihanian was a delightful Nanetta singing some ravishing sustained high notes in her duets with tenor Theo Lebow as Fenton. He's a pretty feisty singer and I was pleased to hear his ringing top notes sounding every bit the Italian tenor.

Conductor and General Director David Speers got the most out of the orchestra and I didn't miss the big orchestra as I had in Trovatore and Rigoletto.

The new chorus master, Sabatino Vacca has solved the chorus problem, for the time being, by reducing the choir to sixteen voices. However, there's precious little chorus singing in Falstaff. Who knows what he'll do about Carmen (in April) which has a whole lot of demanding choruses?

If you've been reading these recounts you know I don't usually give such unreserved praise to opera productions. I've got to hand it to Opera Hamilton for this one, though.

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