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OPERA REVIEWS : Valedictories of Verdi and Puccini : 'Falstaff': Reviving Verdi's inspired setting of Shakespeare's serious comedy, the Music Center Opera production stresses the wit.

February 19, 1990|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

According to some knowing observers, Los Angeles became a genuine force in the treacherous world of opera production on April 13, 1982.

That was the memorable night when Carlo Maria Giulini first conducted Verdi's final masterpiece, "Falstaff," at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

We had no Music Center Opera company in those dark and distant days. Our operatic efforts--mostly second-rate--had to be imported from New York.

The venture was a costly, one-shot enterprise and a labor of love for our venerated music director. The Los Angeles Philharmonic had mounted the production in conjunction with Covent Garden in London and the Teatro Comunale in Florence, locales to which it was soon exported.

Some aficionados registered a reservation or two about that historic "Falstaff." Giulini's mellow and overwhelmingly affectionate perspective stressed pathos at the expense of wit. Except for the magical coup de theatre that transformed the Garter Inn into Herne's Oak in the last act, Hayden Griffin's scenery seemed neutral if not prosaic. Ronald Eyre's staging, ever tasteful, tended toward the cautious.

Still, this was a serious enterprise, realized on a heroic scale. Attention had been paid.

Friday night, the same "Falstaff"--or what remains of it after seven vicissitudinous years--returned to the scene of its inception. For some reason, the Music Center chose to herald it as "a production from the Royal Opera, Covent Garden," even though London never saw it with the singers and conductor assembled for this incarnation. So much for international snob appeal.

Actually, this "Falstaff" bore little resemblance to its predecessor. Only the sets and costumes remained essentially unchanged, and neither time nor travel had treated them with particular kindness. In general, the latter-day version proved brighter, brisker, and perhaps brusquer than its model.

That observation need not be a pejorative. Lawrence Foster conducted with a fine sense of propulsion, with telling concern for instrumental detail, with a good ear for intricate textures and delicate balances. Unlike Giulini, he did not luxuriate in the rapture of the love music, and he found little moonstruck poetry in Nannetta's ode to the fairies. Nevertheless, he enforced verve, sustained clarity and respected ensemble elegance against the odds.

Jeannette Aster, the resident stage director, succumbed occasionally to trivial illustrative devices. Falstaff and little Robin irrelevantly shot dice in rhythm to the scene-setting music for Act II. The attendant mock-elves distorted the exquisite reverie of Nannetta's aria. For the most part, however, Aster kept the lines of action neat and the motivations clear.

Replacing the originally scheduled Ingvar Wixell, Benjamin Luxon cut a remarkably clever, amiable and vigorous figure as Plump Jack. The versatile British baritone, celebrated here last year as a Wozzeck in a green beret, toyed most expressively with the Italian text, occasionally sacrificing legato for parlando effect. Younger and tougher than some Fat Knights, he suggested the possibility of a credible erotic threat and, even in silly decline, retained a shred of noble dignity.

He was funny rather than foolish, which is good. The tones at his command proved solid rather than weighty, which was not so good. Nevertheless, he gave a well-rounded performance, in the best senses.

Rodney Gilfry as a nicely immature and instantly jealous Ford provided the counterforce of bel-canto lyricism coupled with histrionic intensity. Jorge Lopez-Yanez juggled boyish impetuosity and tenoral finesse very sweetly as Fenton.

The more somber gentlemen of Windsor included Greg Fedderly as Bardolfo and Louis Lebherz as Pistola. Both comprimarios underplayed the antics of the roguish if not doltish servants, for which one can be grateful. Stephen Plummer, on the other hand, made nasty Dr. Caius even more pallid than restraint might demand.

Among the Merry Wives, Helga Dernesch, Karajan's erstwhile Isolde, nearly blasted her colleagues off the stage with ersatz contralto snarls as Dame Quickly. She managed to compel lusty sympathy, however, in spite of vocal exaggeration.

Karan Armstrong exuded easy charm as Mistress Ford. Stephanie Vlahos tended deftly to the ungrateful duties of Mistress Page. Virginia Sublett looked pretty and chirped prettily as Nannetta, though her slender soprano conveyed little of the wonted sensuality.

Incidental intelligence:

* The conscientious opening-night audience--not a capacity audience--read the supertitles and laughed gleefully, even when Verdi dictated a wry smile.

* The three acts were performed with only one intermission, a most welcome innovation.

* In the pit, the properly expanded Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra proved once again that it need fear no comparison with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

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