Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The fortuitous encounter with Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson in the title role of Verdi's Falstaff at Opera Colorado

Falstaff, Verdi’s final opera based on William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Parts I & II, owes much to librettist Arrigo Boito’s wonderfully structured and witty adaptation concerning the Bard’s “great whale of Windsor”, the big-bellied knight John Falstaff whose attempts to seduce two married women come to a mocking end. And layered with the composer’s swift, narrative-enriching music, the libretto’s inbuilt comic charms bristle with opportunity for directorial enlivenment. 

Andrew Hiers, Nathan Ward and Olafur Sigurdarson as Falstaff
In a new production that opened at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House closing Opera Colorado’s 2017-18 season on Saturday night - it’s been 30 years since the company first presented the work - director David Edwards, to his credit, succeeded well in capturing the speed and oddball realism of the piece while cleverly harmonising action with music.

In its simple and straightforward rustic setting, the comedy percolated through seamlessly. Stephen D. Mazzeno’s set design, featuring a large Tudor-esque two-dimensional wall with lead light windows and timber strapping, fills the stage and is neatly utilised for both interior and exterior settings with either the addition of a staircase (for Act 1’s Garter Inn and a room in Alice Ford’s house in Act 2) or potted hedged greenery (Act 1, Scene 2’s garden in front of Alice Ford’s house). Falstaff’s ditching in the Thames at Act 2’s end comes across rather clumsily on a sheath of blue cloth and, with just a silhouetted oak tree and low lying distant crenellations for Act 3’s Windsor Park, the overall concept relies on economy of means. It does the job with humble honesty - though without inspired sophistication - as do Clare Mitchell’s variety of fabric-laden village costumes and Lucas Krech’s mostly warm obedient lighting.

Edwards uses the space broadly and has the fortune of a spirited cast with strong acting chops at his disposal. Led by Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson’s adroitly caricatured vocal largesse and the paunchiness to go with it, Falstaff took larger than life form in Sigurdarson’s experienced grip. 

Olafur Sigurdarson as Falstaff and Cynthia Clayton as Alice Ford
He might be grubbily garbed in 16th century long coat and high-reaching pantaloons on first encounter (though he scrubs up rather dashingly in heavy brocade in preparation for his tryst with Alice), but Falstaff, in all sorts of physical manifestations, still has his match today. Sigurdarson entertainingly makes us laugh with him and at him. We can even sympathise with the thick-skinned Falstaff as he’s drowned in mockery and extols his girth and morally questionable virtues. 

And Sigurdarson always looked at ease in the title role’s weighty and complex demands, bringing a cheeky comic agility to an otherwise slovenly lump. And how the voice projected with resonant strength and bucolic depth as if supported by the great mass below. The use of text was superb and the expression to match made a gourmet performance. Then there was the fine falsetto to cap off his character’s own derisive comments. Here was a fully-studied and naturally drawn interpretation that has years of delight to give. 

Alongside Sigurdarson, some noteworthy voices shone. At the top of the list for unwavering consistency and interpretation, there was silken soprano Susannah Biller as the winsome ingénue Nannetta, hearty mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller as the nettlesome Dame Quickly and grainy, robust bass-baritone Andrew Hiers as Falstaff’s thieving double-crosser, Pistola. 

Cynthia Clayton, Susannah Biller Dana Beth Miller, Sandra Piques Eddy
With all their comic requirements, the quality work from other members of the large ensemble cast appeared compromised by an unawareness that, periodically, their voices weren’t carrying into the large 2000-plus seat theatre. Still, soprano Cynthia Clayton’s gorgeously projected top notes and spirited delivery as Meg Ford and lush mezzo-soprano as Meg Page enhanced the game of trickery in bubbly fashion to show Falstaff a lesson. Mingjie Lei’s soothing warm tenor provided the perfect romantic compliment to Nannetta and Marco Nisticò put in a distinguished performance as Alice’s husband, Ford. At one with slapstick delivery, Nathan Ward‘s light comically wiry tenor could have done with a little more flesh as Falstaff’s other cheating henchman, Bardolfo and Alex Mansoori made a bold early showing as Dr Caius. 

One of the performance highlights was the comic spark set off between Miller’s Dame Quickly and Sigurdarson’s Falstaff with voices matching so marvellously you might have wondered whether an amorous rendezvous would come too. The ladies’ front-of-stage lineup in Act 1, as they decide to punish Falstaff after Meg and Alice receive the same love letter, is a vibrantly sung and gesticulated affair but when the larger ensemble fronted, the quick-tempo demands invariably lost tightness and form. From below, conductor Ari Pelto kept the drama well lubricated, its three acts (including two intervals) moving tautly at a swift pace with the Opera Colorado Orchestra in overall good command.

Conceived without show-stopping and stand-and-deliver arias, Verdi’s Falstaff makes for a fortuitous encounter with Shakespeare’s rotund indelible character and, on that account with Sigurdarson in the picture, Opera Colorado have delivered in spades.

Opera Colorado 
Ellie Caulkins Opera House
Until 13th May, 2018

Production Photos: Matthew Staver

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