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Virginia Opera Hits the Mark with Verdi's Falstaff

by Megan Beets
 October 2013

Giuseppe Verdi.

by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Arrigo Boito
Virginia Opera
October 11, 2013

Conductor: Joseph Rescigno
Stage Director: Stephen Lawless

Falstaff: Stephen Powell
Ford: Weston Hurt
Alice Ford: Elizabeth Caballero
Nannetta: Amanda Opuszynski
Meg Page: Coutney Miller
Mistress Quickly: Ann McMahon Quintero
Fenton: Aaron Blake
Dr. Caius: Ryan Connelly
Bardolfo: Jeffrey Halili
Pistola: Jeffrey Tucker
Robin: Jeffrey Pearson

Photos by David A. Beloff.

2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi.  While known for his great enrichment of the sphere of music and the musical stage through his twenty-five operas, inseparable from and subsuming that was Verdi's intense passion for the freedom and ennoblement of mankind. A frequent participant in the salons of Countess Clarina Maffei, whose husband Andrea Maffei was a translator of both Shakespeare and Schiller, Verdi was among the circles of the leading republicans of Italy who organized to free Lombardy from Austrian occupation.  At the Maffei salons, “ spoke about literature, art, industries, political economy, even about philosophy; but everything was bound to the dominant thought: the resurrection of Italy.”[1]  It was Camillo Cavour, a great leader of the “Risorgimento” (resurrection) which made Italy a nation, who wanted Verdi in the first national parliament to help unite the nation, saying, “Now that Italy is made, we must make the Italians.”

Photos by David A. Beloff.
Left to Right: Jeffrey Tucker (Pistola), Stephen Powell (Falstaff), Jeffrey Halili (Bardolfo).

It is quite lawful that Verdi would find close companions in William Shakespeare and Friedrich Schiller.  Schiller's view was that the stage is one of the most powerful tools for the ennoblement of the population, parading shadows before them which portray their own faults and mistakes in a form upon which they can pass judgment, and emerge better people than when they had gone inShakespeare was a constant companion throughout Verdi's life.  He once wrote in a letter, “I have had him (Shakespeare) in my hands from my earliest childhood and I read and re-read him continually.”  

The Virginia Opera chose to celebrate the 200th birthday of Verdi with a performance of his last opera, Falstaff, a less-performed, but delightful and brilliant setting drawing from Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV.  After having set two of Shakepeare's tragedies (MacBeth and Othello), Verdi excitedly worked with his librettist and close friend Arrigo Boito on Falstaff beginning in 1889, and at the age of 79 closely oversaw every detail of the rehearsal process which led into the February 1893 Milan premier. Verdi and Boito treat the subject of Falstaff, the fat, old, lecherous, and yet wonderfully comic knight, with a beautiful, almost seamless collection of wonderful ensembles, all built on fugues, and the kind of counterpoint one only learns from the tradition of J.S. Bach.

Photos by David A. Beloff.
Left to Right: Coutney Miller (Meg Page), Ann McMahon Quintero (Mistress Quickly), Amanda Opuszynski (Nannetta), and Elizabeth Caballero (Alice Ford).

The Virginia Opera came through with a brilliant production of Falstaff.  Baritone Stephen Powell was completely captivating as the title role, with a fine, rich sound that filled the hall with a full spectrum of colors—easily changing from chiding his servants about the uselessness of honor, to fantasizing about the beautiful Alice Ford, to boasting about his upcoming “conquests.”  Verdi also utilizes the full spectrum of the woman's voice, with main roles for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto.  Soprano Elizabeth Caballero has a sweet, full voice, which played beautifully against the deep, rich contralto of Ann McMahon Quintero, and all four leading women are to be commended for their wonderful ensembles.  The easy, warm sound of the young tenor, Aaron Blake (Fenton) was notable.

There were a few distracting elements in the set design, such as the abundant nods to Shakespeare written on the set and props—while one or two are nice, so many sometimes served to distract from the action on stage—to the odd choice of the backstage of a theater for a setting, with big, sterile walls, rather than a tavern.  However, the production held together very well overall, with amazingly tight scene changes, and reuse of props and scenery which maintained a coherence throughout the production (with a hilarious slow-motion “barricade” scene in Act II).  The entire opera was punctuated by the wonderful fugal epilogue: “Tutto nel mondo é ride ben chi ride la risata final,” (Everything in the world is a joke...but he who laughs last laughs best,) whose tight counterpoint was brilliantly executed by the entire cast.

Overall, a wonderful production; a celebratory, happy nod to the composer on his 200th birthday.



[1]. Raffaello Barbiera, Il solotto della contessa Maffei, (Milan, 1925).