Shakespeare is having a good month in the major arts houses at Van Ness and Grove. The San Francisco Symphony has been featuring works inspired by the Bard for the past fortnight, and, ironically, the San Francisco Opera is celebrating the Verdi bicentennial with performances of his final opera "Falstaff," based on "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and scenes from "Henry IV." Shakespeare wouldn't mind the publicity, and Giuseppe Verdi would be pleased as Prosecco at the rollicking treatment his late masterpiece is getting at the War Memorial Opera House.
Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel has returned to the SFO after a memorable run in 2000 as Nick Shadow in Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" to recreate what has become a signature role. Originally too young for the part, Terfel has built a characterization over the years as prodigiously impressive as the vainglorious knight's protruding belly. He still needs some costume padding, but his persona is certainly big enough, and most importantly, he has always been capable of singing the breeches off the role.
So Terfel stands most righteously at the center of this latest mounting by the SFO (11 previously) of Verdi's and librettist Arrigo Boito's warm and wise and genuinely funny take on life, aging, and comical self-delusion. This production new to San Francisco is owned by Lyric Opera of Chicago, with delightful sets and costumes by Frank Philipp Schlossmann, and generally unfussy stage direction by Olivier Tambosi. The musical direction by SFO conductor Nicola Luisotti sets the seal on a surefire audience-pleaser that was eliciting gales of laughter from the very opening of the fast-paced and heartily sung first act.
There are some who still don't understand all the fuss about Verdi's wonderful score, but there are many more who still marvel at the seamless inevitability of the action and the composer's perfect collaboration with Boito. It is one of those operas that simply couldn't be improved on. The warmth and lyrical flow of Verdi's melodic line is always in service of the action, and the tightness and timing of each scene never dawdle telling the tale, while still managing moments of reflection and even a charming love duet.
The faux-oaken sets give a sort of Old Globe flavor to the proceedings in this well-traveled production, and they function well mechanically, but why there should be such long and mood-breaking intervals between acts poses a distracting question. It is a small quibble amidst the fun, and the hubbub created at times by director Tambosi is never really confusing visually, even if it does create an audibility problem for Luisotti. At least Terfel can always be heard above the fray.
The night of my attendance was being simulcast to the Frost Amphitheatre at Stanford, and the cameras in the house were always remarkably discreet. What really threw the performance for a loop was the announcement by soprano Heidi Stober that she could not continue singing during the third act, due to a worsening cold. Her ailment was announced at the start of the show, but there was no standby for the role of Nanetta, so she went on and sounded just fine for the first two acts. Her duet with an ardent Francesco Demurro as her lover Fenton was good and perfectly believable.
At first shockingly unprepared for the potentially calamitous turn of events, management got hold of former Adler Fellow soprano Nikki Einfeld, who lives locally, fairly quickly during the intermission, and after making necessary arrangements, brought her to the opera house. The intermission was delayed, and the performance resumed after a break of one hour, 12 minutes. Ms. Einfeld sang Act III from the side of the stage while Ms. Stober acted the role on stage. A good quarter of the audience reluctantly left before the performance resumed, and their disappointment was clear, no matter how good-natured their acceptance of the "stuff happens" philosophy.
Nikki Einfeld has previously performed the role of Nannetta in Falstaff with Edmonton Opera in 2008, and her presence at a music stand wearing an unobtrusive frock was no detriment to Stober's miming of the part. It seriously threw the performance off-track, however, and the curiously un-magical staging of the final scene (lighting designer Christine Binder could have provided a bit more mystery) was out of synch with all the pleasures of the earlier acts.
Still, there is no denying the show remains a huge hit, and Verdi triumphed over all. There is Terfel's magnificently textured portrayal; I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud just at a performer's entrance (that souped-up all-red costume is really hilarious).
The supporting roles are well-cast and sung, with an especially ingratiating performance by soprano Ainhoa Arteta (remember her lovely Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac?). She sparkles with wit and fire as Mistress Alice Ford, alongside the ample and richly humorous Dame Quickly of Meredith Arwady. Arwady is a contralto with a vibrato-free tone that beams through the orchestral fabric, showing the same kind of natural power exhibited by Terfel. Her scenes with the conniving Sir John were wonderfully droll.
I can never get enough of Falstaff, and even with fond memories of the old Ponnelle production in mind, this latest incarnation is a keeper.
Falstaff continues in repertory through Nov. 2 at the War Memorial Opera House.