Falstaff

Falstaff

You know, I was happy enough with just the bare fact of a Salieri opera happening in Dunedin. This a city where even the operas of Mozart are rarities. The Australasian premiere of a genuine rarity: ma foi, I doubt it would ever have occured to me even to dream of such a treat.  Yet here it is and, lo and behold, it’s a triumph.

Opera Otago has assembled for its Falstaff a line-up of accomplished singers who shine both individually and in ensemble. If there exists occasionally a tendency for singers to project in a manner more akin to musical theatre than opera, it’s understandable given the tiny theatre, the (translated) English libretto and many cast members’ relative lack of operatic experience – not to mention opening night nerves. In any case it’s far from a major issue: Salieri’s music simply doesn’t afford many opportunities for anything other than an operatic approach, and those singers who do fall into the trap never remain there for more than a moment or two.

A few weeks ago I described the women in this Falstaff as more or less my fantasy cast for any opera produced in Dunedin. I’m both gratified and proud to report that they are, indeed, the stuff of dreams – and very sweet dreams at that; and while I don’t tend to dream too frequently of tenors and baritones, the male cast members here match in almost every instance the splendour of their female counterparts.

Rising Australian baritone Derek Welton is majestic in the title role. It’s difficult to imagine a voice better suited to the part: opulent, authorative tone, liquid legato, impressive agility and near-flawless English diction combining to create a memorable performance. Director Jacqueline Coates’ 1930s update has removed some of the character’s broad Shakespearean colour, re-casting Sir John as a small town swindler, but Welton indulges all the same in some brilliant buffoonery, his mellifluous yet subtly gravelly vocalism a perfect match for his shabbily lascivious Falstaff. It’s hard to believe (though not surprising given the rarity of the opera) that this production marks his début in the rôle, or that Welton is just twenty-three years old. He’s a natural stage animal in remarkable command of his material who deserves a shining future: a future which I’ve little doubt will sooner or later include Verdi’s fat knight.

Mistress Ford is sung with verve and polish by soprano Fiona Henry. Her Alice is not so much scheming noblewoman as blithe coquette, a young wife who, were her suitor less repulsive, might just justify her husband’s suspicions. She’s a vivid soubrette in a role where one might expect a slightly creamier lyric voice, but given that youthful characterisation, she’s well cast. The caution audible in some of Mistress Ford’s more challenging moments is unnecessary: this is brilliant, characterful singing which needn’t shy away from anything.

Her co-conspirator, Claire Barton’s Mistress Slender, is in every way an ideal foil, sung with rich, rounded tone and impeccable comic timing. Though both women are given a solo aria or two, their loveliest and most interesting music comes in duet, and vocally the pair is a perfect match. The two voices blend to truly heavenly effect, and their rapport with one another is obvious. Thankfully Mistress Slender has a rather meatier role than Meg Page, her Verdian equivalent, and Claire takes full advantage.

The two husbands, Ford and Slender, are sung by Derek Hill and Matthew Landreth respectively. It’s another effective pairing, Hill’s forceful, if sometimes forced, tenor forming a sharp contrast to Matthew’s gentle and soft-grained baritone. Ford here is slightly reminiscent of a Handelian heroine, vacillating in his arias between florid devotion and jealous madness; his music, too, reflects his over-the-top emotional state, gently mocking the opera seria idiom. After a rather shaky opening night, Hill was in noticeably better form for the second performance. Even better is Matthew Landreth as Mr Slender, a true gentleman and patient voice of reason. Salieri has given him cruelly little to sing, but what there is he handles with poise and elegance, giving what is surely one of his best performances to date.

Asthe Fords’ maid Betty – a role invented by the librettist – Alethea Chittenden is at times in danger of stealing the show. An experienced performer, whose diverse musical credits range from Bach to Anthony Ritchie by way of Sondheim and Die Fledermaus, she’s dramatically the strongest presence on stage, personable and winningly high-spirited. It’s a convincing and vocally gorgeous performance; but she’s a chambermaid whose silken, subtly mature timbre and nobility of both phrasing and bearing are more suggestive of Contessa Almaviva than any kind of servant. It’s not the largest voice but it’s exquisitely shaped, rose-hued and graceful.

Bruce McMillan fills the piece’s other servant rôle as Falstaff’s long-suffering batman Bardolfo. It’s not the most idiomatic or even the most operatic performance, hovering instead between Gilbert and Sullivan and Henry Higgins-style sprechstimme. It’s a rather incongruous approach, and I’d have preferred a properly operatic treatment; but as your standard comic valet, all winking asides and cheeky grins, he’s effective enough, and a crowd pleaser. Rounding out the cast are Nicole Evans and Karl Reid as Mr and Mrs Swallow, characters apparently invented for this production in order to swell the ensembles. Their unexplained and textually unacknowledge presence on stage is thus slightly odd, but vocally it’s a joy to hear from them, even if very very briefly.

Unusually for me, I wrote a few notes for this review. One of them read, simply "HOLLY!!!". It’s hardly the most eloquent or insightful thing one can say about a conductor, but it’s a reflection of the inspired and brilliant work of Holly Mathieson. With sensitivity and precision, she gives a cohesive, flowing and thrillingly nuanced reading of the score, making it difficult to believe that she hasn’t been absorbing this style for decades. The Southern Sinfonia has rarely sounded better, the colourful, effervescent orchestration unfolding with style and surprising beauty, partnering the singers perfectly and never once overpowering them. It’s only a shame that the overture in this production plays with the curtain up and the Act I party already in progress: this orchestra and its extraordinary maestra need no aids to excitement.

There’s a great deal more to be said: about the production, about the English translation, about the opera itself. It’s all brewing: I’ve already written more than enough for one night, and I still have three performances left to attend. Leave it at this for now: Opera Otago’s Falstaff is just the delicious treat I hoped for, and more besides. My congratulations and gratitude to all involved: you’ve achieved something rather special.

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