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'Falstaff' Is Clever and Familiar Rascal

Music review: The emphasis is on theatricality in L.A. Opera's revival of the Verdi opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

October 30, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Verdi's last two operas, "Otello" and "Falstaff," are perhaps the only works in any medium to improve upon Shakespeare. For that reason alone they can serve as indispensable examples for our current craze with adaptation, be it in film, television, musical theater, modern opera or novelization. But something else also makes them special to Los Angeles.

"Otello" was the opening production of L.A. Opera 1984, the opera that proved we could have a bona fide opera company of our own. In 1982, however, a celebrated "Falstaff," produced by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting in 1982, was what made us realize we could make, not import, our own opera here, no matter what.

Though created two years before the advent of L.A. Opera, that "Falstaff' production entered the L.A. Opera repertory in 1990, and Wednesday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it returned. Much has changed over time. The sets were never much more than serviceable and still aren't. But costumes and direction have been rethought for the better. The cast and conductor are new.

Overall, the shift has been away from music toward theater. Giulini emphasized a dignified, humane, poignant "Falstaff," lovingly played and sung, that proved better sonic poetry than messy, real world theater. Those musical standards can no longer be met, but in their place is a crew of adept singing actors, a lively conductor and any number of telling dramatic touches from the director, Stephen Lawless. It is not, in the end, a unfortunate trade-off.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 31, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 12 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Incorrect date--In the review of "Falstaff" in Friday's Calendar, the date of L.A. Opera's opening production of "Otello" was incorrect. It was 1986.

The Falstaff is Australian baritone Gregory Yurisich. His voice is neither particularly large nor distinctive--a disadvantage, it would seem, given that Falstaff is both. But Falstaff's attraction is that he transcends so many foibles. Braggart, liar, adulterer, Falstaff is, nonetheless, a character of mass appeal (sound familiar?) who seems to embrace life and in doing so becomes a symbol for our humanness. He has a monstrous belly but a light step.

And Yurisich, with remarkable attention to detail, to facial expression and movement, captures that fundamental nature. A flexible and lyric voice serves him well. It tells us of the suaveness and deeper character under the girth, and draws us in. He is also very funny.

"Falstaff" is an opera in which everything happens on gossamer wings. The improvement upon Shakespeare is Verdi's (and that of his inspired librettist, Arrigo Boito) transferring the essence, with incomparable musical acuity and brevity, of the character of Sir John from the "Henry IV" plays, placing him in the comic roundelay of Windsor's merry wives and raising the whole affair to the level of "The Tempest" with its spectral mysteries. The opera ends in a fugue ("Everything in the world is jest"), but it also operates like an elaborate fugue throughout--a fabulous, airy, fleet mosaic of interacting characters and musical ideas continuously juggled.

The characters who all seem to dart and buzz around Falstaff like a horde of bees, each with but fleeting bars to establish character. Blink and you miss something. Blink, in this production especially, and you miss much. Ashley Putnam (Alice Ford) and Suzanna Guzman (Meg Page) are both merry wives and wise ones. Stephanie Blythe (Mistress Quickly), a mezzo-soprano with the amber luster of a young Marilyn Horne, made a memorable company debut.

Kathleen Brett (Nannetta) and Greg Fedderly (Fenton) were the honeyed lovers, who slip in and out from nowhere dispensing captivating lyricism. Robert Orth (who has managed not to be typecast after creating the operatic role of Harvey Milk) was a menacing and wonderfully comic Ford. Jonathan Mack (Dr. Caius), Charles Castronovo (Bardolph) and especially Jamie Offenbach (Pistol) were the slapstick contingent, and gracefully so.

Gabriele Ferro's excitable conducting helped make this theatrical, although an orchestra with faster reflexes and a richer, more focused sound would have raised the musical level a notch. Indeed, satisfying as were so many individual performances, and as were so many directorial touches, there was a sense that the ensemble at times was just on the edge, that complicated blocking still needed conscious consideration. The midnight haunt in Windsor Park was more awkward and contrived than magical. The physical production here too much shows its age and provenance. But with a bit more fluidity in the ensemble, it can still soar.

*

* "Falstaff" repeats Saturday and Nov. 6, Nov. 8 and Nov. 11, 7:30 p.m., and Nov. 14, 1 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., $25-$137. (213) 365-3500.

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