Friday, July 22, 2011

Finding Falstaff

Only rarely does a work of art derived from Shakespeare equal - much less surpass - the artistic standard set by its source. I can think of only one such case, in fact: Verdi's final opera, Falstaff, which is derived from the Bard's Merry Wives of Windsor (and bits of Henry IV, Part I).

Verdi edges out the Big Kahuna this time because, well, Verdi was no slouch (and neither was his librettist, Arrigo Boito), and also because  The Merry Wives of Windsor is the weakest play Shakespeare ever wrote - or at any rate it's certainly the least interesting.  Clearly cobbled together in a rush (as legend would have it, to please Queen Elizabeth), it wrenches Falstaff from his proper time and place and plunks him down among the Elizabethan bourgeoisie, where he is subjected to a series of sexual humiliations by the aforementioned merry wives. I've only seen a few productions, but I have to say, for me, hilarity always fails to ensue from these hijinks - and there's certainly not much thematic development to distract you from that fact. Still, the play has touches of atmosphere in its final intrigues in Windsor forest (above left, according to Fuseli), and it represents, I suppose, a kind of benign riposte to the sexual politics of The Taming of the Shrew (although I wish the women who are so horrified by Kate's humiliations didn't always laugh quite so loudly at Falstaff's). And certainly Wives provided a durable template for a whole ensuing history of goose-and-gander sitcoms; we probably wouldn't have Lucy and Desi without it.

Still, I'd much rather attend Falstaff than Merry Wives; most of the best jokes are here, and since little of the dialogue is inspired, we don't mind the rough translation into Italian. What's more, librettist Boito has stramlined the repetitious plot and punched up the fear of cuckoldry that undergirds the play. Add to that some of Verdi's loveliest melodies (which reach a glorious peak in the third act), and you have some very good reasons to hie thee to the Somerville Theatre (believe it or not), where the Boston Opera Collaborative production takes its final bows this weekend.

Now BOC may be a largely volunteer organization, but clearly they're on an upward curve when it comes to quality; Falstaff was sung at a consistently high level, and played with brio by a small orchestra under the baton of Mischa Santora (the ensemble held forth from a newly-renovated pit - yes, the Somerville Theatre had a pit; who knew?). Alas, in dramatic terms I'm afraid this Falstaff was a somewhat mixed bag - and I wasn't crazy about director Heidi Lauren Duke's decision to set the show in the 70's, either. Still, there were a few performances here that were as satisfying dramatically and comically as they were musically.

James Liu, Nicholas Hebert and Kevin Kees in Falstaff.
But first - can everyone please stop setting things in the 70's? Actually, there's an argument for plunking Merry Wives into a tacky Three's Company-style surround, but somehow "updating" things into this particular decade has itself come to seem very dated - it feels like something Diane Paulus would do, and some arthritic critic from the Phoenix would applaud. At any rate, scenic designer Ada Smith is apparently aiming for Quentin Tarantino's cheesy grindhouse-70's rather than the sunny, shag-rug suburban 70's, so the choice feels even more pointless and forced.

And there's another problem right at the production's center - as Falstaff, Kevin Kees boasts a deliciously deep baritone that's just right for the role, but he has a distant, somewhat jaundiced presence, and lacks the robust sense of comic invention the part requires.  Luckily, the merry wives themselves were cast more to type - Lindsay Conrad's hilarious Mistress Ford was a particular delight.  And as her daughter, Nannetta, Megan Stapleton supplied the most sublime singing of the evening (even if she wasn't too sure of herself on a skateboard!). Still, the stand-out performance of the show came from Jacob A. Cooper, who as the jealous Mister Ford sang well but acted brilliantly - indeed, his explosion of suspicious rage in the second act may have been the best piece of "Shakespearean" acting I've seen all year.  And something about the cast's general enthusiasm was simply infectious - when a fuse blew in the middle of act two, sending the chaotic centerpiece of the farce into complete darkness, you could still just make out everybody carrying on with their shenanigans in the blackness, just as if nothing was wrong (and the orchestra didn't miss a beat, either).  "Wow," I thought to myself at the time, "they've even added a black-out!"  It was perhaps the most charming moment in this generally-beguiling entertainment.

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