By Márcio Bezerra
It was well worth the wait: After 60 seasons, Palm Beach Opera finally staged Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, in a remarkable production that will remain as one of the highest achievements of the (at times heroic) company’s history.
Premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1893, the opera is not as popular as Verdi’s earlier output, not only because it demands a large stellar cast, but also (and mainly) because the music is so different from what we know and expect from the Italian master.
Here is a mature composer who abandons the traditional melodious arias in favor of fast-moving scenes musically characterized by speech-like short motives. The harmonies are sometimes so modern that one may think of Puccini as a retrograde in comparison. To be sure, there are plenty of references to the old genres, especially in the numbers featuring the young lovers Nanetta and Fenton, but they should be taken not as nostalgic glances backward, but as ironic commentary on older conventions previously used by Verdi.
Utilizing handsome sets and costumes from the Canadian Opera Company and the Utah Opera, the direction of Garnett Bruce let the humor come from the words and plot rather than acting histrionics. It all felt very natural, and the entire cast worked as a cohesive unit even when the action took improbable twists.
In an ensemble opera with no showstopper arias, a homogenously strong cast is needed. And that is exactly what PBO offered.
Still, there were some standouts: On the title role, Palm Beach Opera’s baritone de rigueur Michael Chioldi was just flawless. His acting skills, perfect diction, and beautiful, sonorous instrument made him a perfect match for the role. This was easily his best characterization for the company since his debut in 2003. His “L’onore! Ladri!” was particularly effective – funny but utterly sincere.
Equally delightful was tenor Bergsvein Toverud as Bardolfo. His clarion tenor resonated through Dreyfoos Hall and his acting skills stood out even among accomplished actors. As Ford, baritone Andrew Manea grew vocally as the opera unfolded – by his “È sogno? o realtà” his voice had found its place.
Among the women, Soprano Andrea Carroll displayed a seductive tone and perfect diction as Nannetta, and she played her role with sincere naïveté. As Alice Ford, soprano Amber Wagner had a solid technique and beautiful tone.
The chorus (under the direction of the ever-competent Greg Ritchey) sang with appropriate lightness and control.
Palm Beach Orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Antonello Allemandi, really pulled out all the stops with an unobtrusive performance that provided insightful commentary on the action. The score, almost Mozartean in its transparency, requires not only excellent ensemble players but also first-rate principals, and the audience got just that at the Kravis Center. All in all, a production that will be remembered for seasons to come.