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No, No Nanetta: “All the World’s a Jest”

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FALSTAFF Opera Review

What better way to celebrate Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s bicentennial than with a production of Falstaff? This opera, which adapts William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts I and II, and the Bard’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, is nothing short of a sheer delight. The title character Falstaff (Italian baritone Roberto Frontali in make-up and a fat suit it takes 55 minutes to get into) is about insatiable appetites, in and out of bed. The whimsical story presents the war between the sexes, pitting the frail male ego against feminine wiles -- and well, your plot spoiler adverse critic doesn’t have to tell you how that one ends up, does he?

Arrigo Boito’s libretto is set in England around 400 years ago (although the singing is all in Italian) andalso deals with aging, as the eponymous character approaches old age and is rotund, an impoverished nobleman who has lost his fortune (probably squandered on quenching his endless thirst and on wenching). All in all, Sir John Falstaff is no longer the man he used to be -- yet continues to aspire to be.

With his eternal eye for the ladies, our polyamorous hero pursues not one, but two women. However, both Alice Ford (Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio) and Meg Page (Oregonian mezzo Erica Brookhyser) are not only much younger -- and thinner -- than Falstaff, but both happen to be wed to wealthy Windsor gentlemen. But a boy can dream, and they merrily lead the wannabe seducer on in order to teach the epicurean rascal a lesson or two. In this merry madcap three act opera with one intermission, hilarity ensues, with a grand finale redolent of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream supernatural romp.

The lighthearted farce has a subplot wherein the youthful Nannetta (Russian soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova) is betrothed by her father Ford (Sardinian baritone Marco Caria), against her will, to marry the much older Dr. Caius (Ohioan tenor Joel Sorensen replaced Pennsylvanian Robert Brubaker at the premiere), even though Nannetta fancies the younger, handsome Fenton (Argentine tenor Juan Francisco Gatelli). What’s a lass to do?

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Floridian mezzo-soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller portrays Mistress Quickly, whose name suggests that she had been a madam at a bordello. The down-on-his-heels Falstaff at one point tips her with a turkey drumstick -- which, in those days, was a rarity as those birds had just been encountered by Europeans in the New World. In a backstage tour of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion prior to the debut it was revealed that given that Falstaff was such a gourmand lots of food is actually prepared per performance, including one turkey per show. What is not eaten onstage is later devoured by the cast and crew -- although the drumstick bone is preserved because at one point later in the opera Mistress Quickly reappears onstage holding it, in order to suggest the passage of time (that is, she has eaten her gratuity from Falstaff). BTW, the actor/singers sagely avoid eating nuts -- which can stick in their throats -- during their performances.

Adrian Linsford’s costumes and sets delight the eye, including the half-timbered (or Tudor style) tavern called the Garter Inn, where Falstaff and his scoundrel sidekicks Bardolph (Filipino tenor Rodell Rosel) and Pistol (Russian bass Valentin Anikin) are shacking up. The grand finale takes place on an outdoor set with a grandiose tree called Herne’s Oak in Windsor Park. The proceedings are well-directed by Englishman Lee Blakeley, with choreography by London’s Nicola Bowie. Grant Gershon is the chorus master, while James Conlon wields the magic wand for Falstaff -- which was the very first opera he had ever seen, as well as the first opera Conlon was paid to conduct.

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The Shakespeare-tinged libretto’s lines range from the droll to the whimsical to the poetic. A one point one of the characters advocates putting “a tax on fat people” -- which, given America’s obesity epidemic, just might solve our debt and budget deficit problems. At the end Falstaff sings: “All the world’s a jest, man is born a joker, and he who laughs last laughs best.”

Nanetta’s aria may have the most sublime lines: “From our enchanted hands may words blossom... words illuminated by pure silver and gold... Magic incantations and charms. The Faeries have, for alphabet letters, flowers.”

[dc]V[/dc]erdi was 79 when Falstaff premiered 120 years ago in Milan, and this was the maestro’s final opera. Now he is, alas, gone with the Windsor (although, of course, his music remains blissfully eternal). To paraphrase the lyrics of an Ann-Margret song: “Bye bye, Verdi! We’re gonna miss you so. Why’d you have to go?” Happy 200th birthday Giuseppe!

Ed Rampell

Falstaff is being performed Nov. 16 and Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m. and on Nov. 24 and Dec. 1 at 2:00 p.m. by LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.

Ed Rampell

The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell, "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book", published by Honolulu's Mutual Publishing, drops Nov. 25. See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/