What a daring and inspired choice for Verdi to pick Falstaff out of the great oeuvre of Shakespeare, and likewise for Opera Santa Barbara (OSB) to pluck Falstaff from out of the complete works of Verdi. Falstaff is unlike any other opera, by Verdi or anyone else, and it can be perplexing on a first encounter, as it is almost an “opera minus arias.” But Verdi’s Falstaff is nevertheless an enchanting and thoroughly satisfying experience — once you know what you are getting. This elegant yet forceful production was directed by OSB’s Jose Maria Condemi and featured a beautiful, nearly surreal production design that originated with Steven Kemp at Opera San Jose. The set, which changed interiors multiple times over the course of Friday evening, placed all of the action within what appeared to be a giant wine cask, a context that was fitting both for Falstaff, that notorious drunkard, and for wine-mad Santa Barbara, circa 2014.
Sidestepping the central conflict in the Henry plays by eliminating Prince Hal, Verdi’s adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor nevertheless retains the mythic dimensions of Shakespeare’s second-greatest character. Todd Thomas was outstanding as Falstaff, delivering the lead’s innumerable quips and comebacks in tune and on cue while also developing his character through a broad but effective set of physical mannerisms. It’s indicative of his achievement, and that of the entire cast, that loud laughter could be heard coming from the audience starting with the opening act and continuing all the way through to the uproarious finale. The bulk of Verdi’s genius in this particular work was devoted to writing complex and fanciful fugues for the singers and wonderful, illustrative passages for the orchestra. Conductor Francesco Milioto and his group of musicians negotiated the work’s often frenetic pace with aplomb, allowing the singers to respond with confidence.
Each of Falstaff’s three acts includes two locations, typically an indoor and an outdoor scene. In Act I, the action begins with Falstaff depicted among his longtime cronies, Bardolfo (Tyler Thompson) and Pistola (Daniel Scofield), and his latest fall guy, the unfortunate Dr. Caius (Juan José de León). In the second half of Act I, the scene shifts to the garden of the Ford residence, where Alice Ford (Melody Moore), Nanetta Ford (Rebecca Nathanson), Meg Page (Courtney McKeown), and Mistress Quickly (Catherine Cook) are busy discovering that the two love notes sent by Falstaff are identical. This scene, played out in front of some sensational topiary, sets the tone for what will follow, as the merry wives prove themselves to be more than a match for Sir John when it comes to plotting. Ford (Lee Poulis) then arrives, accompanied by a whole phalanx of men, including the traitorous Bardolfo and Pistola, and Caius and Fenton (Joshua Kohl). The act ends with a double plan to deceive and discredit Falstaff, with the women aiming to carry out one aspect, and Ford himself, the husband that Falstaff intends to cuckold, charged with the other.
Act II begins sedately enough, with Ford disguised as “Master Brook,” enlisting Falstaff as an aide in his plot to seduce Alice Ford. Soon enough, though, the scene shifts to the Ford home, where Falstaff enters the trap that has been set for him in full peacock mode, reminiscing about his glory days as a slender ladies’ man. By the end of Act II, it becomes clear what the big hole at the center of the rear of the set is for, as Falstaff is tossed, along with a load of dirty laundry, through this window and into the Thames below. The standard knock on this adaptation of Shakespeare is that Act III, in which Falstaff gets his comeuppance, is not equal to the dignity of his more poignant dismissal by Prince Hal (now King Henry) in Henry V. While Verdi is no Shakespeare, his riotous conclusion was thrilling on Friday night, and the audience responded with appreciation and gusto.