The set-up: Falstaff, Giuseppe Verdi's final opera (1893), is like the best champagne. It fizzes with life, sparkly and clean, and sets one to smile at first sip. Everyone at the time thought Otello (1887), regarded then as his crowning achievement, would be his last work for the stage, but the maestro had a wonderful surprise in store -- a work so different in tone and style from anything he had previously written, and, as a topper, an opera that is laugh out-loud funny. Comedy wasn't Verdi's strong suit, it's not opera's strong suit, either, but here is one as effervescent as anything by Rossini. Opera in the Heights closes its Shakespeare-inspired season with a stunning production of this masterpiece.
The execution: OH has had a remarkable string of good productions lately, certainly due to the leadership under artistic director/conductor Enrique Carreón-Robledo, and Falstaff is no exception. Thrillingly sung, conducted with buoyant humor, directed with a lively comic touch by David Ward, simply designed by Rachel Smith (sets), Dena Scheh (costumes), and Kevin Taylor (lighting) to fit snugly into the Globe-like setting that's been used for all four productions this season, Verdi's intimate look at Shakespeare's earthy, most human character pleases without qualification.
The utter delight of the evening is the discovery of baritone Guido LeBrón, who truly can be said to "own" this role of the self-deluded, gluttonous fat knight. From the first moment when he raises his balding pate from off the table at the Garter Inn, bothered as if by a pesky gnat by the furious arrival of Dr. Caius (tenor Ryan Ford, who was having an off night), LeBrón never takes a false step. His deep, sonorous baritone spreads through Lambert Hall like honeyed mead, thick and rich and immediately tactile. His big belly precedes every entrance, and he constantly massages it with pride. Sir John, old and getting older, likes his food and wine but loves the ladies more. (Verdi lets us hear wine's dizzying effects in one of the opera's most picturesque passages as the drink courses through the ever-increasingly tipsy Falstaff.)
He's foolish enough to think the ladies love him in return. When he writes love letters to two merry wives of Windsor, Alice Ford (soprano Michelle Johnson, spirited and commanding) and Meg Page (mezzo Patricia Cay), inviting himself to a tryst, the opera takes off on a brisk gallop. That Ford is married doesn't faze him in the least; it only whets his libido. When he goes a-wooing, he dolls up in foppish finery, looking like Humpty Dumpty in Oscar Wilde drag, a sight gag worth admission.
LeBrón runs with Falstaff -- well, as much as any potted sot can run. After he gets tossed into the Thames to teach him a lesson, he crawls back to his beloved inn, begging for more to drink. He collapses on the floor and then proceeds to roll back and forth to get enough momentum to turn over so he can get up. LeBrón plays this comic business with the finesse of W.C. Fields. He doesn't make a big deal out of it, which makes it funnier, all while he's singing Verdi with supreme control and exquisite diction. It's a defining interpretation; without question, one of the best sung "potbellies" I've ever heard.
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Among all operas, Falstaff is written as an ensemble piece, using quartets, quintets, and even a sprightly fugue for all the principals at the finale. The music doesn't pause; there aren't any "arias" in the classic sense, with definite stops allowing us to clap; and not even much of remembered melodies to be hummed afterward. It is like a play with the most exquisite music which expands the dialogue, explaining the words using another type of sound.
Librettist Arrigo Boito (Verdi's Otello, Ponchielli's La Gioconda, composer of Mefistofele) sharply condensed Shakespeare's plays that referenced Sir John into gossamer lightness -- Merry Wives of Windsor is the base text. There's a subsidiary love plot between Ford's daughter Nannetta (soprano Julia Engel, beguiling of voice) and Fenton (plangent tenor Eric Bowden) that's written as lush Italianate romance; Alice's jealous husband Ford (Adam Meza, in hearty Verdian baritone mode) assumes his wife is having an affair; and there's a trio of comic characters who surround Falstaff: his two slapstick henchmen Bardolfo (tenor Nathan de Paz) and Pistola (bass Daymon Passmore), and Mistress Quickly (mezzo Alissa Anderson, comically perfect), who delivers the billets-doux to Falstaff with false flattery and a flash of ample bosom to snare him.
With a tinge of autumnal sadness, Falstaff gets his comeuppance in the Forest of Windsor. Even after his unceremonious dunking in the previous act, he still chases these women. Nannetta gets Fenton, Alice and Ford reconcile, and we know that Sir John, with belly, will return as soon as possible to the Garter Inn and get pleasantly plastered. In the opera's sunny ending, the cast turns directly to us for the moral. They sing, "All life is a joke...he who laughs last laughs best." The finale swirls and builds, bubbling and joyous, from soloist through chorus, louder and louder, until we're all grinning in agreement.
The verdict: Old man Verdi, the most famous composer in Italy, revered and rich, was 80 years old when Falstaff premiered at Milan's La Scala. Although the musical complexity is the work of the composer at the pinnacle of his accomplishment, it has the sound of youth. Verdi definitely had the last laugh. Opera in the Heights laughs along with him. It's the sweetest sound on earth. Verdi's final masterpiece sings with robust joy April 27; May 2, 4. The alternate Emerald cast (Rebecca Heath as Alice, Claudia Chapa as Mistress Quickly, Allison Pohl as Nannetta) performs April 26, May 3, May 5 (matinee). Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd. Purchase tickets online at operaitheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $10-$55.