Review by Winnie Dreisonstok
Would you enjoy seeing a play by one of the world’s greatest playwrights and an opera by one of the world’s greatest composers in one happy, entertaining evening? Do you enjoy the Italianized Shakespeare of Franco Zeffirelli films? If so, and if you find yourself in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in May, Verdi’s Falstaff (adapted from Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor) is just for you!
… enjoyable, entertaining, and even a bit enlightening about the human condition.
Sir John Falstaff is the comic Shakespeare character who does not show us the best in human beings: he is slothful, avaricious, and gluttonous — a collection of deadly sins rolled into one overweight hypocrite of a knight. Yet he is also lovable, full of personality, resilient, and a reminder that “The whole world is but a joke. We are all fools.” He also serves as a caution that, quoting again from the Dallas Opera’s congenial surtitles to help viewers through the Italian: “Men often fall in the traps created by their own malice.”
Falstaff’s malice is that he is courting two married women, in order to inveigle money from them or their husbands. These two ladies, Mrs. Alice Ford and Mrs. Meg Page, create traps for Falstaff. The part of Falstaff is difficult, for one must play the fool and yet with some gravitas. Mark Delavan hands this with aplomb. Early on in the opera, Falstaff promotes amorality, the idea that “honour is just a fine word.” Falstaff is then coaxed by “the merry wives” into hiding in a laundry basket full of dirty clothes and thereupon thrown in the River Thames. He then has the nerve to complain about the total lack of morality in society nowadays, as if he were an innocent victim.
Delavan’s singing voice is wonderful, too, as in the cynical aria mocking honour “L’onore! Ladri!” and his smug aria of congratulation “Va, vecchio John” Angela Meade as Mrs. Ford, Megan Marino as Mrs. Page, and Stephanie Blythe as Dame Quickly are wonderful, too, as they sing in harmony and contrast of the identically worded “love letters” Alice and Meg have received from Falstaff.
This opera (with excellent stage direction here by Shawna Lucey) was Verdi’s last and the music experimental and bordering at points on modern. The orchestra under the direction of Riccardo Frizza conveys this brilliantly and underscores the operatic voices and the opera buffa style – Italian for opera involving fools, for (to quote again from the libretto) “Every man laughs at the other’s folly.” Here it is worth noting that the Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas has wonderful, state-of-the-art acoustics.
A word must be said about the costumes and sets. The costumes evoke at once the Elizabethan Renaissance and Italian opera, ever reminding us we are simultaneously in the worlds of Shakespeare and Verdi. The sets are hauntingly beautiful, especially opera’s later scenes in “Windsor Forest,” a stage suggesting a plain dominated by dusky red skies – perhaps reminding us that this production is being staged deep in the heart of Texas! More seriously, the gloomy romantic background shows there might be more depth and irony here than one suspects.
Different attitudes towards love are put forth in Verdi’s work and the Dallas Opera presentation of it. There are the young lovers Fenton (Airam Hernández) and Nannetta (Mojca Erdmann), both tenor and soprano in lovely voice, with their poetic view of love: “We will be like twin stars, united in one glow . . . Love is deaf to thunders and storms. The middle-aged, realistic view of love is manifested in Mr. and Mrs. Ford, for whom love is shaded by jealousy and full of misunderstandings. For some, like Falstaff, love is simply a farce and an opportunity to seize material advantage.
The fool theme thus transitions to the multifaceted nature of love. Tying it all together in this production and in the work is Falstaff, so human and so similar to people we may know in our own lives. The Dallas Opera production of Falstaff is thus enjoyable, entertaining, and even a bit enlightening about the human condition. I recommend it without reservation.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Falstaff continues May 4th. For more information and tickets, click here.