Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Verdi's Falstaff in Ghostly Outing at Forest Lawn Cemetery

Zeffin Quinn Hollis as Falstaff in Pacific Opera Project production

Glendale, California
September 19, 2015

Review by Evan Baker

During the composition of his opera Falstaff in June of 1891, a good humored Giuseppe Verdi wrote to his librettist Arrigo Boito: "Pancione (“Big Belly”) is going crazy. There are days when he doesn’t move, but sleeps and is in a bad humor.  At other times he shouts, runs, jumps, causes a devil of a rumpus. I let him indulge his whims a bit; if he continues I’ll put on a muzzle on him and tie him up in a strait-jacket.”
Boito responded: “Evviva! (“Three cheers!”)  Let him run, he will break all the windows and all the furniture of your room—it doesn’t matter, you will buy some more. He will smash the piano—it doesn’t matter, you will buy another. Let everything be turned upside down, as long as the great scene is finished. Evviva! Give it him! Give it him! What pandemonium! But pandemonium as clear as sunlight!"

That same exuberance and energy -- minus the broken dishes and smashed piano but with a mandolin sacrificed in the ensuing mayhem -- resonated in the Pacific Opera Project's own splendid staging of  Verdi's final operatic masterpiece.

Staging the opera at the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale was a clever idea. An open-spaced alcove behind the compound's large theater conveniently houses a thick multi-branched tree with a perch for the tenor to sing his love aria and enough additional space for a small multi-level stage and a hidden chamber orchestra.

An audience of about 250 patrons gathered together around tables strategically laid out and provisioned with Italian salami, cheese, wine, and beer.  Before the performance, the Falstaff and Pistola characters casually ambled through the audience toward the stage, nonchalantly drinking beer from their cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the low-brow brew appropriate for their status as low-lifers. With this, the stage, designed by Josh Shaw, was set for the action he also directed. Stephen Karr conducted the orchestra and provided a literary translation for the supertitles.

The production was straightforward, with the temptation for broad slapstick thankfully resisted.  All except Fenton wore red-diamond checkered costumes in Maggie Green’s designs, evoking shades of commedia dell’arte.  Ryan Shull’s lighting, particularly for the final scene in the forest, with its twinkling starlight cast upon the leaves of the tree, added to the evening's ambience.

Falstaff can be a difficult opera in both staging and musical performance. Much depends both on the soloists (who, on this occasion, sang splendidly) and, even more importantly, on its ensembles.  Two examples will suffice: in Act I, scene 2, the “backing and forthing” between the groups of merry wives (Alice, Nanetta, Meg, and Quickly) and the men who enter the stage after them (Ford, Fenton, Dottor Cajus, Pistola and Bardolfo). The famous fugue at the conclusion of the opera is another example of ensemble singing. More of the latter anon. Pages from the first edition libretto of 1893 (seen below) illustrate how the musical execution of the men and the women, each with texts separate from one another, must all interact at the same time:

Falstaff rises or falls on the performance of the title role. It is not enough that he merely sing the part; he must act the role with good comic timing, charm and musicality. Zeffin Quinn Hollis's Falstaff carried it weight well, moved the performance along with energy and without artificial gags. He sang with aplomb, especially his grand monologue, L’Onore! (“Honor!”). In the second act, Daniel Scofield's Ford sang his aria of vengeance (È sogno? O realtà? —“am I dreaming or is it reality?”) with rage and at the end dissected a roasted chicken with a frighteningly large knife.

A sly reference to the performance locale manifested itself when Falstaff, arriving to woo Alice, carried a funerary wreath—presumably “pinched” from a memorial on the grounds—instead of a bouquet of flowers; realizing the error of his ways, he hastily broke the wreath apart in favor of a handful of flowers.
The Merry Wives of Alice (Rebecca Sjöwall), Meg (Jessica Mirshak), and Quickly (Sharmay Musacchio) had a good time stuffing Falstaff into the large laundry basket while Ford huffed and puffed around the stage with outrage at the thought of his Alice committing adultery. Together with his cohorts of Cajus (Clay Hilley), Bardolfo (Kyle Petterson), and Pistola (Phil Meyer) they searched for the fat man, and at the requisite point in time, heard the distinct sounds of two loud kisses (so noted precisely by the composer in the score) emanating from behind the paravent, only to catch the young sweet lovers in the act, Nanetta and Fenton (Annie Sherman and Nadav Hart).  

During the final scene of the opera, at the “apotheosis” of the marriage of Nanetta and Cajus, together with a masked couple, a sly bit of humor appeared in the supertitles: with the removal the masks and veils, the couple reveal themselves as Nanetta and Fenton newly married, with a horrified Cajus “married” to Bardolfo.  The supertitles appeared thusly “I’ve married Bardolfo! / (It’s legal now!)” elicited a good round of laughter from the public. Whereupon followed the magnificent music of the ensemble singing the fugue finale led by Falstaff and his compatriots in a brilliant and rousing conclusion.

In another letter to Boito, Verdi wrote, "The strangest thing of it all is that I am working!  I am amusing myself by writing fugues!  Yes sir, a fugue… and a comic fugue, which would be in place in Falstaff!  You will say: 'But how do you mean, a comic fugue?  Why comic?'  I don’t know how or why, but it’s a comic fugue!"  It seems likely that the fugue at the conclusion of the opera, "Tutto nel mondo è burla" (All of the world is just a jest) was the very first music composed in the opera (and difficult for the entire ensemble to sing), written before Verdi even had the text in hand.  

After Verdi completed Falstaff, he left a note inserted between the pages of the autograph full score, wistfully bidding farewell to one of his greatest creations: “Go, go old John…  Go on down your road as far as you can… Entertaining sort of a rascal, eternally true beneath different masks, in every time, in every place!! Go, walk on, walk on, Addio!” And on this path, old Sir John Falstaff entertained mightily that contributed to a rewarding performance from the Pacific Opera Project. It augurs well for their forthcoming production of Gaetano Donizetti’s backstage farce, Viva la Mamma.


Evan Baker can be reached at [email protected]  and  www.opera-intros.com

Above photo by Martha Benedict, courtesy of Pacific Opera Project


Falstaff: Zeffin Quinn Hollis
Alice Ford: Rebecca Sjöwall
Ford: Daniel Scofield
Mistress Quickly: Sharmay Musacchio
Nanetta: Annie Sherman
Fenton: Nadav Hart
Dr. Caius: Clay Hilley
Meg Page: Jessica Mirshak
Bardolfo: Kyle Patterson
Pistola: Phil Meyer

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