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Opera Australia: Falstaff review

by Heather Leviston

For the final offering in Opera Australia’s Melbourne season, Falstaff makes a most welcome appearance. Generally considered to be Verdi’s crowning achievement, it is ground breaking in its musical complexity and use of a through-composed style. With few exceptions, gone is the series of set arias showcasing the virtuoso talents of the singers. In its place are a series of interchanges and ensembles that depend on the combined talents of both singers and instrumentalists to amaze and delight, which is just what this production does.

Opera Australia’s decision to present, back-to-back, two operas that share important plot characteristics is intriguing and invites certain comparisons. Gordon Kerry’s program notes for Don Pasquale include the following 1844 quote from Donizetti: “The world wants something new. Others have ceded their places to us and we must cede ours to still others …  I am more than happy to give mine to people of talent like Verdi.”

Completed in 1843, Don Pasquale was among his last works for the stage. First performed in 1893 Falstaff was the seventy-seven-year-old Verdi’s last opera. Both operas have as their central character a deluded old man who seeks to assert his manhood by forming liaisons with unlikely younger partners. Both Don Pasquale and Falstaff have their redeeming features inasmuch as they come to acknowledge their folly and join with others in accepting the frailties of human nature and that life is to be enjoyed despite this.

Central to these operas are the eponymous characters and how they are to be played. It might have been easier for Conal Coad to endear himself to us with his portrayal of a buffo character, who is a bit stupid but much put upon and essentially warm-hearted. Warwick Fyfe has to deal with something more complicated. There is a cynicism to the character, mainly voiced in his musings about the nature of honour, which is quite dark. There are shades of Iago and Scarpia there. Falstaff is not only deluded, he is a glutton a sot and a lecher; he woos Alice Ford and Meg Page simultaneously and is stupid enough to write letters in identical phrases to them. How do you make such a character sympathetic?

There are some singers who specialize in playing Falstaff, such as Ambrogio Maestri, whom Melbourne audiences saw earlier this year in the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD telecast. His ubiquity indicates the difficulty of finding ideal singers for this role and the premium opera houses put on a successful seasoned performer in this challenging role.

Musical and vocal considerations appeared not to pose any real problems for Fyfe. His rich baritone was powerful and expressive. As an actor he was sufficiently impressive to have secured a Green Room Award for Schaunard and a Helpmann Award as Best Male in an Operatic Featured Role for his terrific Albrecht last year.

As Falstaff, Fyfe seemed to be somewhat hampered by some of his physical appearance. His face was so heavily made up that he might just as well have had a series of botox injections than try to project his way through the red foliage and bald pate that constituted his beard and wig. There were moments, particularly in the final scene when the lighting allowed his facial expressions to become more visibly expressive, but for most of the time, his eyes and body language were left to do most of the characterization. When he has a moment of clarity, deploring his girth and greying hair, it is hard to reconcile this with his uniformly orange hairiness. Given his vocal prowess and some of the more lively moments, there is no doubt that Fyfe is very well suited to the role; it is a pity that he was obliged to deal with these impediments.

As Mistress Ford, Jane Ede gave a vocally and dramatically strong performance, highlighting the wit of the role. Even though she and her cronies Mistress Page and Mistress Quickly are just about guilty of murder by throwing poor old misguided Falstaff into the Thames in a laundry hamper, she accentuated the positive qualities of the character. Domenica Matthews was an animated comic presence as Mistress Quickly and Jacqueline Dark a lively accomplice as Mistress Page. They made a most effective vocal trio as well as bouncing off each other in their energetic interaction.

The seamless interplay of slapstick shenanigans between Pistol (Jud Arthur) and Bardolph (Kanen Breen) was not just the result of long rehearsal and performance through the Sydney season, but a measure of their skill. Kanen Breen has established himself as a performer of comic genius. Those who were lucky enough to see the early Melbourne performances of Partenope will never forget the ingenuity he brought to his part. As Bardolph, he mined the role for every skerrick of comic gold that he could find. His final appearance as the counterfeit Nannetta was outrageously funny. Both he and Judd Arthur, so different in vocal timbre, sang extremely well.

In contrast to the more sordid action, Taryn Fiebig and Jonathan Abernathy made a charming pair as the thwarted young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton. A comparative newcomer to OA, Abernathy is a young tenor from New Zealand who looked every centimeter the young, handsome romantic swain. His voice is most pleasant and showed great promise. Taryn Fiebig was, as usual, a fetching and warm presence. She did full justice to Nannetta’s enchanting summoning of the fairies in the final scene – possibly the most magical and best known part of the opera. As her father, Michael Honeyman gave a solid performance with some fine singing, while Graeme Macfarlane was a creditable Dr Caius.

Unlike the other two OA offerings for this season, Falstaff was firmly planted in its original time and place with Iain Aitkin’s picturesque sets replicating the inn and village. An unexpectedly two-dimensional rendering of Windsor Forest for the final scene, with no sign of the legendary oak tree apart from the acorn dropped from on high, provided an attractive backdrop for the fairies and devils. The bathing of green light for the market place and the yellow for Ford’s house did little for the complexion, but a judicious use of spots helped to compensate for this and added to the drama of the action. Freezes and slow motion sequences were also effective parts of Simon Phillips’ original diection.

It was evident throughout that Orchestra Victoria took great delight in performing such a meaty work. Under conductor Christian Badea the players gave a spirited and at times very beautiful account of the score, the off-stage horn playing in the final scene being only one example of the latter. Disciplined singing from the chorus and line-up of soloists produced some very fine ensemble work, most notably in the fugal section for all ten soloists at the end of the opera, when all is forgiven and a somewhat rueful joviality reigns. In the end, it was not just the wives of Windsor who were merry; the other players and the audience were all invited to join them – which we did.

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Heather Leviston attended opening night of Opera Australia’s Falstaff at the Arts Centre Melbourne, on December 1.

The photo is from the current production and was taken by Jeff Busby. It shows Warwick Fyfe as Falstaff and Jane Ede as Alice Ford.

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