If you can ignore the inexplicable trapdoor center-stage, around which the singers must maneuver so as not to fall into the bowels of the Wortham, then Houston Grand Opera's staging of Verdi's final operatic masterpiece, Falstaff, is its most satisfying this season. It's a fitting capstone to David Gockley's 33-year reign as HGO general director before he moves on to San Francisco.
Falstaff starts with an orchestral belch -- a sneeze, if you prefer -- and ends with a sublime laughing fugue; in between, the opera bubbles with life-affirming happiness, smiling from beginning to end. The work is unlike anything Verdi ever wrote, yet no one else could have written it -- it's the culmination of everything the venerated octogenarian knew about theater, dramatic construction, orchestral instrumentation and color. Luminous and witty, Falstaff is music written with sunshine. Themes don't stay around long; arias, when they appear, are abbreviated. The whole work wafts by like a most refreshing breeze.
Along with Verdi's musical effervescence, Falstaff is blessed with a sparkling Shakespearean libretto by Arrigo Boito (who would later compose his own masterwork, Mefistofele). Words and music have never been so aptly combined. Falstaff -- retired knight, drunkard, glutton and dirty old man -- is puffed up with his amorous prowess and ripe for pricking. And the three merry wives of Windsor, amused at the vain buffoon's misplaced attentions, set him up for a comic comeuppance. Nothing is tragic or even taken very seriously; life's too short, and all the world's made for fun.
HGO hired the best Falstaff around, Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, and his long-overdue debut was superb. Preceded by his immense belly, bewhiskered like a cartoon with a curlicue topknot, and swilling tankards of adult beverages, Terfel is a lovable roué, a farce of a man who thinks he's the hippest cat around. He goes a-wooing wives Alice and Meg, taking a moment to make a quick stab at Mistress Quickly, all while wearing a blazing red quilted doublet (should be a triplet) with voluminous pantaloons and plumed cap. This Falstaff is as huggable as Santa. And whether he's bellowing, caressing or hiding in a laundry basket, Terfel gives a delicious performance, all while singing like a dream.
As Falstaff's conquest-to-be, or so he assumes, Patricia Racette's Alice showcases her brain as well as her expressive voice. A consummate actor, Racette overlays Alice with knowing maturity and wonderful comic timing. Angela Niederloh makes a sultry Meg, with a matching smoky voice, while Christine Brandes, as romantic young Nannetta, soars radiantly in her lyrical yet brief nocturnal aria, calling the spirits into the Windsor woods. As Mistress Quickly, mezzo Judith Cristin entertainingly chows down on the scenery, and Falstaff's dissolute cronies are adroitly played by Nicholas Phan as red-nosed Bardolf and Joshua Winograde as scarecrow Pistol.
In a past age, the role of Ford made baritone Lawrence Tibbett an overnight star at the Metropolitan Opera. No such luck for James Westman, who throws away his famous soliloquy about his wife's faithfulness. As Nannetta's impatient lover, tenor Jesus Garcia lacks vocal oomph but at least looks the part. Both were making their HGO debuts, so jitters may have undone them.
Maestro Patrick Summers pours his heart into the score, eliciting all the delicacy and unquenchable human spirit inherent in this magical work. With its merry wives and merrier Falstaff, this opera dances, fresh and evergreen.
No Fear of Flying
Clap your hands if you like amplification. I'm not clapping either. Remember when actors actually had to project to be heard in the balcony? Those days are long over. In Theatre Under the Stars' production of Broadway perennial Peter Pan, it sounds like we're inside an oil drum. Even the orchestra's electrified. Pumped up, the sound is synthesized and artificial, as if piped in from some theater down the street, and the dialogue drowns under tinny violins and rock-concert percussion. Fat chance this inexcusable practice will ever change.
Regardless of the abysmal sound, the intrinsic quality of Pan holds up amazingly well. It's a big brassy musical with enough of James Barrie's original play to keep its title. As always, Peter leads Wendy and her brothers away from London into Neverland, where they join the lost boys, live without grown-ups and take on Captain Hook.
As Peter, Cathy Rigby amazes. "The boy who wouldn't grow up" fits her like a pair of hand-sewn tights. Even without a wire, she soars, vaunting over beds, using the stair railing as parallel bars, scrambling into handstands and strutting like a tomboy. She's completely at home on stage, belting out "I Gotta Crow" or gyrating like a Broadway gypsy during the lively "Ugg-a-Wugg" number, where Peter attacks the tomtoms like a possessed Kodo drummer. Even Mary Martin, forever branded with Pan's mug, couldn't fly like Rigby. She's fearless as she zooms around the stage with breath-catching speed. When the bedroom windows fling open, the orchestra swells with the intoxicating "I'm Flying," the walls break apart, and Rigby rockets into the stratosphere, spewing that patented pixie dust, it's an indelible, heart-pounding Broadway moment at its finest. And Rigby's curtain call is the best on record.
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