Opera San José's Falstaff
February 13, 2023
* Notes *
A 2013 production of Falstaff (Act II pictured, photograph by David Allen) set in a wine cask returned to Opera San José last weekend. There was much lovely singing and comedic physicality.
Based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and scenes that Falstaff appears in from Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, this work has a lot of fat jokes, which I found alienating.
Obviously this is because of the source material and what Arrigo Boito chose for the libretto, but the director, José Maria Condemi, seems to simply go with this without question. Falstaff is vain, gluttonous, and lustful, and not self-aware, every reference to his big belly and fatness garnered laughter in the audience, even if it was not yet sung and just in the supertitles. For me this was unsettling, are we really still in a place in the culture where it's acceptable to laugh at the shape of people's bodies? It highlighted for me how deeply entrenched anti-fatness is in our society and how old it is, even in opera, which famously features many people in larger bodies.
The production does have a lot of entertaining physical comedy, which the singers are very adept at, especially our title character, baritone Darren Drone (pictured with Chanáe Curtis as Alice Ford, photograph by David Allen). All his movements were clear and he was, indeed, very funny. He was pompous yet remained lovable. His voice has warmth and depth. Tenor Marc Molomot as Bardolfo and bass-baritone Andrew Allan Hiers as Pistola expertly played off of Drone, and all were able to nicely blend their voices together.
Contralto Megan Esther Grey was a sprightly Dame Quickly, and my curiosity was again piqued, I would love to hear her in a meatier role. Mezzo-soprano Shanley Horvitz (Meg Page) and tenor Zhengyi Bai (Dr. Caius) supported the other voices well.
Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu was a delight as the jealous, conniving Ford, his sound rich and robust. He definitely found his match in soprano Chanáe Curtis (Alice Ford), her voice is hefty, she can reach some effortless soaring notes but sounds grounded at the same time. They were a pleasing contrast to the young lovers, tenor Jonghyun Park as Fenton and soprano Natalia Santaliz as Nannetta, whose light, bright voices are sweet and pleasant.
The set, designed by Steven C. Kemp, is charming, the round arches make it obvious that we are inside a barrel. The shorter scene changes with the curtain up between Act I Scene 1 and 2 and Act III Scenes 1 and 2 were more successful than the two longer changes with the curtain down before and in the middle of Act II. People lose interest quickly and start talking when they have nothing to watch, and often that conversation doesn't end when the music starts again.
The orchestra, lead by Maestro Joseph Marcheso, had some lucid soli in the brass and woodwind sections. The music was rollicking and fun, and seemed on the verge of spilling over into utter chaos without actually doing so.
The scene change in Act II had a title that updated us on the Super Bowl, stating that the game had not yet started.
There was light talking from the audience but most egregious was a cell phone that rang in Act III, Scene 1 when Falstaff was singing. The phone rang a full three times and someone loudly protested, asking the person with the offending phone turn it off.