"Everything in the world is a jest!" With these words Giuseppe Verdi began the colossal final fugue of his only comedy, Falstaff. It was this monumental work which I had the pleasure of seeing this Thursday produced by Utah Vocal Arts Academy and Utah Lyric Opera for their Principle Artist Summer Program. I had attended their performance of Gianni Schicchi two years ago and certainly enjoyed it, but was absolutely blown away by the professional nature of their current program. Falstaff is the tale of the great "fat knight" of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV. Not exactly Spring chicken, the rotund and reprobate Falstaff has become interested (well, maybe more than just interested) in the fair Alice (in Italian pronounced ah-lee-chay) and her friend Meg. After sending the same note of solicitation to both, scheming ensues (what else in an opera?) to bring down the proud cavalier.
Anyone can read a Wikipedia article, so I won't recount the entire story. However, the opera goer is constantly entertained by this never slow plot. The quick pace of the opera is aided by seemingly endless strings of text in the ensemble numbers which were expertly navigated by the large cast of principles. The cast consists of small groupings of two or three characters whose music is complimentary and they spend most of the opera together.
First, I must mention the comic duo of Bardolfo and Pistola played by Bjorn Eriksson and Spicer Carr. Their performances as the two cronies of Falstaff provided an extra measure of levity to the already comic opera in excellently timed slap-stick interactions.
Next, the pairing of the young couple Nannetta and Fenton. Jenny Smith as Nannetta played the reserved but playful daughter of Alice and Ford. Her rendering of the character was wonderfully youthful and she sported a rich voice to match. One of my personal favorites of the night was Jonah Hoskins. The quality of his voice is unmatched by any tenor of his age in the state of Utah and was perfectly matched to the music of the enthusiastic Fenton.
Dr. Caius and Ford, the latter trying to marry off his daughter Nannetta to the former, present an interesting twist in the plot. Dr. Caius was played by a confident Jordan Reynolds. In his first tenor role (audiences in Utah have seen him as Belcore and Count Almaviva) he immediately commanded the stage upon the opening lines of the opera. Baritone Christopher Clayton was an excellent Ford, a role full of outbursts of anger but also reserved calm. In his oration "È sogno? o realtà" he established the conflicted character who both mistrusts women and swears vengeance on Falstaff.
The trio of women composed of Mistress Quickly, Meg and Alice are responsible for the bulk of the plotting against Falstaff. Mistress Quickly was wonderfully portrayed by Valerie Hart Nelson. Her silky contralto was a pleasure to experience, always very commanding and present in the sometimes dull acoustics of the Provo High theater. The constantly drinking and scheming Meg was played by the wonderful character actress Lennika Wright. Her ability to weave subtle humor into the many situations of Falstaff was admirable. Jennifer McKay absolutely embodied the role of Alice, knowing how to string Falstaff along and yet providing the right amount of rejection to his advances. Alice is a bit of a thankless role having no aria, and yet she has many wonderful moments as the Prima Donna. McKay perfectly navigated this difficult role.
The sole character with no single partner in the opera is of course Falstaff. In his late years he has become quite proud of his size and deludes himself with respect to his ability to seduce women. The Don Giovanni who never was, his character is one of the most complex and perhaps also the most simple-minded. His role is full of wonderful music including but not limited to his first act lecture on "honor," the scenes with Quickly and Ford, and of course the final fugue. Well equipped both in body and voice was baritone Gregory Watts. His portrayal was spot on in characterization as he moved about the stage with pride and sang with a gruff yet richly colorful voice both comic and commanding. He was truly a magnificent Falstaff.
A word must be said for the stage direction of Marc Reynolds, whose productions have proven to be quite well received here in Provo. His direction is beautifully musical coming from one who understands the role of music in the drama, a trait that is often severely lacking in modern opera theaters. Maestro Nicolas Giusti led a slightly reduced and yet fully present orchestra. His understanding of Italian stylistic elements in Verdi's score helped to bring out all the most important colors in the orchestra.
This production was the wonderful product of UVAA's summer program headed by Dr. Isaac Hurtado. They will also feature performances of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers. Performances of both operas will run on Saturday the 18th of July and should not be missed. Information can be found at http://www.utahvocalartsacademy.com/