The American Singers’ Opera Project continues with this year’s Falstaff, Verdi’s last opera and one of only two comedies. Based primarily on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, the opera is a lively romp that follows the entire cast’s revenge on the Bard’s charming, portly scoundrel.
The American Singers’ Opera Project is a non-profit that was formed in 1995 to allow singers in the U.S. to get a summer workshop and production experience without having to pay the cost of going overseas. The organization moved to North Carolina in the early 2000s in order to keep costs down for participants. These range from high school students to professionals midway through their careers who just have not had the chance at that role they have always wanted. This production is triple cast, meaning that going early and often is an excellent thought.
As the ASOP does incorporate a wide range of levels of experience, the casting was necessarily a bit uneven. David Clark in the title role and Corliss Smith as Mrs. Quickly were both outstanding. Both blended power and charm in their portrayals. Clark’s Falstaff seems to take himself very seriously, even though no one else does, either on or off the stage. His versatility between buffo and lyric baritone enabled him to express his laughable and lovable character effectively. Also spot-on were the Fords, played by Jennifer Noel and Johnathon Kirby. Among the younger voices, Jenee Luquette’s Nannetta was memorable for her hopelessly romantic persona and bell-like tone.
This is ASOP’s first year with a chamber ensemble, which is inarguably indispensable in order to appreciate Verdi’s sparkling orchestration. The spooky third act is especially delightful, and was carried over well, despite the technical challenges. The players had a wonderful collective sense of musicality, and they seemed well-rehearsed. Conductor Dr. Valentino Piran consistently expressed a deft sense of timing, especially during recits. The balance could have used a slight adjustment to compensate for some of the less mature voices, but the issue could have been due to an acoustic fluke because of placement. Had the orchestra been situated in a pit, there would likely have been no problem whatsoever.
The opera was billed as “in Italian with large ensembles in English.” This choice, for pedagogical reasons, is certainly a shrewd one. Singing English translations is a valuable skill, especially for those who want to increase their appeal to a wider demographic. From the perspective of the audience, however, the effect of switching back and forth between Italian and English was questionable. The simple change in levels of comprehension would have been difficult enough to process, but the adjustment to a much less singable language at the most climactic moments of the work was unsatisfying.
Michael Kamtman, the stage director, made a few daring choices, some winning more success than others. The decision to have Caius, Bardolfo, and Pistola masked for the entire performance measurably detracted from their appeal. The singers’ eyes, so crucial to expression, were obscured, and the dramatic effect at the end of the third act when the entire company appears in costume was less impressive than it might otherwise have been. There were many more moments of success, however. One of the cleverest was in the very first scene, when the page sent to deliver Falstaff’s love letters turned out to be the phony page turner sitting by the pianist (whether anybody else found the pun amusing is doubtful, but it was much appreciated by someone who has often served as a page-turner herself). The blocking in Ford and Falstaff’s tête-à-tête was wonderfully effective at portraying the former’s suppressed antagonism. Additionally, technical director Jay Lawson is also deserving of note. The creativity and success of using the stand lights to create both full and partial blackouts without ever stranding the musicians was responsible for much of the sense of continuity.
The only truly disappointing aspect of the entire evening was the thin turnout. There were nearly as many working as watching, if not more. Of course, a weekday in the summer never draws an enormous crowd, but these folks deserve more. And how often do you get to go to the opera for less than the cost of a movie theater ticket? If you do (and you should) make it for one of the next two nights, tracking down a libretto is recommended, as there are no supertitles in this production.