Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A fantastical and quirky period-set Falstaff plump with mockery beams at Palo Alto's West Bay Opera

Across centuries of storytelling through opera, the position of and outcomes for women rarely look glowing for contemporary eyes. Even when holding positions of power, they draw the short straw, often depicted with an emotional fragility and doomed by the men around them. 
Richard Zeller (centre) as Falstaff

But over the course of a day in Verdi’s Falstaff, based on the larger-than-life character from three of Shakespeare’s plays - The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 - women appear to have the upper hand. In its comic comment on entitlement, lechery and gluttony focused on The Bard’s “great whale of Windsor”, Falstaff is outsmarted and mocked after plotting to seduce two married women who want to teach him a lesson. Indeed their cheeky retaliatory efforts go to plan but does Falstaff learn his lesson? Sadly, he seems not to have, for this hard-shelled self-assured mass ignorantly believes himself victorious. 

In watertight dramatic form, Shakespeare’s intriguing plot is jauntily and snugly bound to Verdi’s swift-paced and narrative-heightened music and in tune with Arrigo Boito’s comically-polished and visually inducing libretto. It also comes staged in a fantastical and quirky period staging by Mexican director Ragnar Conde with a strong singing/acting cast from a company I had the fortune of discovering recently on a trip to San Francisco.
Ensemble cast in Act 2 of West Bay Opera's Falstaff

Smack in the land of small start-ups and global technology companies, Palo Alto’s West Bay Opera is a treasurable find. The company are celebrating their 60th season in what is a modest 400-seat theatre that feels too small than the level of artistry on show. It also seems the company have been in the business of delivering high quality opera for decades judging by photos of previous productions hanging in the lobby of the Lucie Stern Community Theatre.

Running the operation, Artistic Director and conductor José Luis Moscovich has assembled a genuinely unified cast sporting fine credentials. He also keeps the vitality and momentum of Verdi’s score well-oiled and shapely in a challenging three-level arrangement of the near 30-member orchestra. Despite a slither of the stage being utilised uniquely to house the brass section on two levels due to pit limitations, it works a treat. Notably, while presiding over strong musicianship, Moscovich shows himself to shine as a singer’s conductor and together with Conde, creatives and artists, all the boxes get ticked for a meaty and hugely entertaining encounter.

Watching and hearing the molten and smoky baritone blend of Richard Zeller’s Falstaff celebrating his belly and getting a good roasting is theatrical gold. An experienced Metropolitan Opera singer, Zeller’s animated and agile Falstaff prompts laughter both with him and at him, with continual lashings of charisma and spots of sympathy for the ridicule he receives. Zeller makes his performance all the more impressive because every moment on stage is given conviction as Falstaff engages, dismisses, plays and grapples with his townsfolk. 
Richard Zeller as Falstaff and Taylor Haines as Alice

Taylor Haines delivers assurance that Alice Ford - object of Falstaff’s lust for her body and her money - has what it takes to enact her trap for Falstaff, weighting her plush and flexible soprano superbly to the text and dishing out elegantly projected top notes. Haines is joined in spirited form by gem-studded mezzo-soprano Veronica Jensen as Meg Page. Complicit in their trickery, Patrice Houston swirls about in generous vocal richness accompanied by deep plunging humour as Mrs Quickly. As Alice’s darling daughter Nannetta, Anastasia Malliaras’ sparkling soprano improved from thoroughly delightful early on to excellence in Act 3’s beautifully floated gossamer-edged fairy song. As her young lover, Dane Suarez’s warm tenor comfortably fits his ardent Fenton. 

Michael Mendelsohn’s fine characterful rawness as a dishevelled Dr. Caius, together with Falstaff’s thieving double-crossers - Michael Orlinski’s limber Bardolfo and Kiril Havezov’s brawny Pistola - effortlessly humorise in setting the scene for trouble ahead. Completing the ensemble of nine solists as Alice’s distinguished husband Ford, smooth and muscular baritone Krassen Karagiozov gives jealousy a handsome touch. A small exuberant chorus of townsfolk and fairies fill out the picture evocatively.
Richard Zeller (centre) as Falstaff and Ensemble, Act 3

Then there is the absolute joy derived from the staging itself. The striking beauty, subtle playfulness and sophistication of Peter Crompton’s combined projections and set-build are utterly absorbing. In its implied Elizabeth-era setting, with striking, detailed costumes by Abra Berman and a cocktail of lighting by Steve Mannshardt, stepped and wandering spatial interest provide ample opportunity for Conde’s lively direction on a restricted stage. King timbers angle in expressionist boldness. Infill walls and backgrounds give modern technology and creativity a canvas for all sorts of wondrous imagery, including a monster’s open mouth in the form of roaring fireplace in Acts 1’s Garter Inn within which a pig is being roasted on the spit. Obvious?

In this all-round accomplished West Bay Opera production, symbolic mockery is comically kept alive with everyone and everything out to punish Falstaff. Perhaps his only defenders sit somewhere in his audience. Now that’s a recipe for debate!

West Bay Opera
Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto
Until 2nd June, 2019

Production Photos: Courtesy of West Bay Opera

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