It's an extremely cold day in hell when a masterpiece can be appreciated equally by opera queens and novices with tin ears, but Opera in the Heights satisfies both with its stunning production of Verdi's final opera Falstaff (1893). If you're new to opera and ever wondered what all the fuss is about, OH will both satisfy your curiosity and keep you absolutely entertained. As for the initiated, they'll just be in heaven.
Based on Shakespeare's larger-than-life Sir John Falstaff, the slovenly, debauched knight who slums with Prince Hal in Henry IV and then is let loose in The Merry Wives of Windsor to wreak havoc in love, Verdi's "huge hill of flesh" is the ultimate comic character — blustery and full of ham, yet so lovable and appealing that we immediately fall for him. He's a windy force of nature, and we rally to him, especially when he makes an ass of himself. Librettist Arrigo Boito, who masterfully condensed Otello for Verdi's 1887 masterpiece, gives the fat knight a most distinctive voice here. Boito's clever adaptation is a textbook of farcical situations, comic roles and sparkling wit woven into a structure that never stops or falters. Reading it makes us laugh out loud, which is a nearly impossible feat in the world of opera.
If Boito gives Falstaff a voice, then wizard Verdi supplies the old roué with heart and song. Verdi was 80 when this opera premiered, but there's only youth and vigor in the score. Listen to the gossamer texture he weaves into the bewitching music for Falstaff's midnight tryst in the forest, or how he evokes the tingly effects of wine when it warms Falstaff's chilly body. Preeminent music master that he is, Verdi discards many of opera's conventions. There are no musical themes to anchor our ears, no blazing duets or arias to stop the show. Verdi pares down opera's glitz until what's left is genuine shine: a shimmering sound that undeniably defines Shakespeare.
Opera in the Heights responds to this spirited opera with its most assured production to date. Everything works, from the fresh direction of Matthew Ozawa, to Nick Bakaysa's Elizabethan-inspired timbered frame proscenium, to Dena Scheh's fanciful costumes.
Maestro William Weibel leads an invigorated orchestra that inspires the richest of ensemble casts. Especially impressive is baritone Jason Budd as a Falstaff prodigious in both voice and girth. Upbraiding his greasy cohorts Bardolfo and Pistola (Stanley Wilson and Benjamin LeClair), wooing wise Alice (Crystallia Spilianaki), flirting with Dame Quickly (Nancy Markeloff), snatching money from Ford (Chad Karl), upbraiding senile Dr. Caius (George Williams) or watching young love triumph with Nannetta and Fenton (Alyssa Bowlby and Lawrence Jones), Budd's Falstaff is as puffed-up, inadequate and worthy of laughter as any of us. Which is exactly what Shakespeare — and Verdi — intended.
(Michael Anthony McGee is the alternate Falstaff on April 2 and 3. Douglin Murray Schmidt is the alternate Ford on April 3.)