Delavan’s hearty Falstaff makes a splash in Dallas Opera debut

Sat Apr 27, 2019 at 3:25 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Mark Delavan in the title role and Angela Meade as Alice Ford in Verdi’s “Falstaff” at Dallas Opera. Photo: Karen Almond.

Shakespeare’s bumbling scoundrel Falstaff made his belated Dallas Opera debut Friday night at Winspear Opera House in the 60-year-old company’s first presentation ever of Verdi’s comic masterpiece.

A production originally created in 2013 for Los Angeles Opera, this Falstaff delights with deft orchestration, an engagingly earthy faux-Elizabethan setting, and a powerful lead — Mark Delavan, likewise making his company debut.

The version by the late Lee Blakeley pulls the viewer, visually, into Shakespeare’s world of three hundred years before Verdi and two hundred years after Henry IV — ruler of all, apparently, except the wayward drunken knight Falstaff, who captivates Henry’s son, Hal, heir to the English throne when he’s not Falstaff’s partner in slumming.

Adrian Linford’s sets, with half-timber towers on either side of the stage, evoke the Globe and Swan theaters in which Shakespeare’s plays were originally produced circa 1600, and his costumes are purely Elizabethan, including realistically tattered costumes for lower class characters.

The result is pleasantly anachronistic. Although this is unquestionably Italian romantic opera in its melodic and musical quality, Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, were clearly under the spell of the utter Englishness of the characters Shakespeare created in The Merry Wives of Windsor — the work on which Verdi’s Falstaff is largely based and the most unquestionably British of all Shakespeare’s plays.

Indeed, Verdi broke all his own expectations for this, his final opera, in 1893—four decades after the premieres of Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore. The influence of the recently deceased Wagner was pervasive across Europe at that moment, and Puccini and his fellow practitioners of verismo were already at work in Italy; recitatives and arias had begun to merge as 19th Century opera neared its end.

In Falstaff, Verdi goes beyond Wagner and Puccini in creating an endless stream of melody and exposition. The few moments that could be identified as arias rapidly dissolve. In contrast to the unforgettable melodies of Verdi’s mid-century hits, the composer here produces an even more impressive — at least to the connoisseur — cascade of melodic snippets precisely expressing the character and dramatic situation of the moment.

Riccardo Frizza, who most recently conducted in Dallas for a production of Puccini’s La Boheme in 2015, handled this super-energetic and constantly shifting score deftly, with close attention to the endless array of orchestral effects with which Verdi enlivened this score.

Aside from the title role, Falstaff contains several characters who come in and out of prominence. Soprano Angela Meade brought a solid vocal quality and commanding presence as Alice Ford, matched by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, with an even more powerful voice, as Mistress Quickly. Much lighter of stature and voice, mezzo-soprano Megan Marino minced and fluttered delightfully through the role of Meg Page.

The one standard romantic female role, Nannetta, brought the most beautiful and controlled voice of the production in the person of soprano Mojca Erdman, who — disguised as the fairy queen for the rollicking final scene — shone in an extended near-aria with chorus, “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio.”

Among the male cohort was tenor Airam Hernández making his American debut as Nannetta’s forbidden love interest, Fenton — presented as a common laborer, beneath Nannetta’s social status, in this production. Hernández displayed a gorgeous and rich voice, but struggled a bit in the upper range in his extended romantic arioso at the opening of the final scene, slipping into head voice for a few worrisome seconds.

Tenor Robert Brubaker presented another solid, muscular voice as Dr. Caius, and baritone Quinn Kelsey brought vocal subtlety as the jealous Ford, particularly in his famous Act II soliloquy as a husband who doubts his wife’s faithfulness.

The opera of course revolves around the eponymous Falstaff, a role offering tremendous rewards, challenges, and possibilities to a bass-baritone of vocal power and rotund stature. Delavan took on this multifaceted role with unfailing energy, a powerful voice, and an insight that allowed him to create a character who is abusive, scheming, self-delusional and, in the end, merrily accepting of his own foolishness and the general folly of humanity.

Delavan’s vocal approach was basically broad, leaning toward rambunctious volume levels and a solid, not particularly textured timbre. But he frequently shifted into quick moments of varied tone — even a comical falsetto. He was crudely misanthropic and cynical in the brief “Honor” aria of Act I, and convincingly reflective in the opening of Act III, where Falstaff begins to awaken to the error of his ways.

Reproducing original director Blakeley’s concept, stage director Shawna Lucey relied on some mild slapstick and occasional deconstruction of words and ideas — Falstaff occasionally becomes a modern-day American for a few seconds — while presenting a consistently energetic visualization of the work.

The chorus, prepared by Alexander Rom, handled the intricacies of Verdi’s choral writing magnificently. All came together for that wonderful and miraculous final fugue — one of the finest moments in all opera, Verdi writing with a contrapuntal clarity and complexity Bach would have admired. There, a repentant but still lively Falstaff and his now-friendly comrades remind us that our human lives are mere folly, a condition the wise accept and embrace.

The production will be repeated at Winspear Opera House on Sunday at 2 pm, and May 1 and 4 at 7:30 p.m.; 214-443-1000.

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