Once could argue that Falstaff (1893) fits the bill for the Ideal Opera.* It’s based on Shakespeare, after all, and it was prepared for Italy’s greatest composer by one of Italy’s other great composers (Arrigo Boito), who’d fixed up Giuseppe Verdi with the libretto for Otello a healthy six years earlier. Old Joe Green wasn’t noted for comedy – this one is his second. But that by the time he was nearly 80 he knew how to create vocal solos and ensembles and to dress them in the most effective orchestral garb imaginable is evident from start to finish in this brilliantly constructed score. That it squeezes so much commentary on human foibles into such a relatively short span merely enhances its appeal – and no, there’s not a single drop of shed blood (or a death) anywhere to be seen.

The current production of UNCG’s Opera Theater, offered in UNCG’s auditorium, is economically but very attractively set by Randall McMullen, dressed by Deborah Bell, and lit by MFA (Drama-Design) student Caleb Taylor; the opera is directed by David Holley and conducted by the great Peter Perret, making his first appearance in opera in years. The star of the show is baritone Richard Zeller, on loan from the Met, but he is admirably complemented throughout by a remarkably well-matched cast of budding stars from UNCG’s extensive stable of artists, ranging from grad students on the cusps of professional careers down to sophomores just starting their work in this staggeringly impressive training program.

Zeller seemed an ideal colleague and mentor as he worked with grace and charm with the younger singers. These included Michael Friedrich (Cajus), Lorenze Sparks (Bardolph), Reginald Powell (Pistol), and Liston Kidd (Innkeeper) at the outset – these folks return again and again as the plot thickens. In the second scene, the ladies of Windsor come to the fore: Tamara Beliy  (Meg), Victoria Erickson (Alice), and Kayla Brotherton (Quickly) plan Sir John’s comeuppance in the presence of Leanna Crenshaw (Nannetta) and her beau, Ian DeSmit.** As in Otello, jealousy rears its head here, but with far less tragic consequences – human emotions are on display as Christian Blackburn (Ford/Brook) rants about infidelity and then joins in the game to shame the old fat guy – and to be shamed himself, at the end, as well, for trying to fob off his daughter on a geezer. (Similarities to American’s ongoing political nightmare are merely coincidental in this production, and no animals, human or otherwise, were done up with orange paint.)

In the pit are 45 or so superb instrumental students playing with enthusiasm and (generally) precision under Perret’s guidance. In the first act there was sometimes too much orchestral sound; on those occasions the supertitles were helpful – the production was sung in English (mostly) in a superb translation by Walter Ducloux – and incidentally this opera merits doing in the vernacular, since there’s so much that’s important in the text…. (That “English (mostly)” bit got a comic boost when, in the last scene, Sir John calls out the midnight chimes in Italian!)

Pardon the digression…. So much of import to cover, so little space….

The orchestra settled down as the evening progressed, with balance between the stage and the pit fairly soon approaching ideal. Part of this issue was the contrast between the guest artist and the students, including the matter of projection. That the audience was engaged on opening night was manifest from the outset, so there was some sparkling in the house to match the many charms of the words and the music.

The substantial chorus, street folk, hangers-on, etc., were another couple dozen students, marshalled by chorus master Jonathan Emmons (of UNCG’s DMA program).

Others meriting credit are tech director Katelyn Seymour and whomever did the choreography of the grand finale – that was quite a tableau!

Among the vocal participants, kudos to Sir John of course but also to Ford and Fenton, to Quickly and her distaff compatriots Alice, Meg, and Nannetta – with special praise for Ford’s and Quickly’s diction. There are oodles of faux reverential goings on as Quickly tweaks the fat guy, as he is later bundled with the laundry and dumped in the river (or ditch, as he put it), and in the glorious finale, so magnificently set up by Nannetta – whose several duets with Fenton are also among this production’s highlights. One could merely let the magic of the music flow over, under, around and through you, laughing all the way to the end – at which point the magnificence of Verdi’s autumnal creation will just as likely bring a tear to your eye as a twinkle. Bravo, tutti!

*Mozart’s Don Giovanni may run it a close second but that title character eventually goes to hell. **Some roles are double-cast; different singers will portray Meg, Alice, and Nannetta on Apr. 5.

Notes: 1) Maestro Perret is a CVNCer whose contributions have graced our journal since 2004. He did us all proud tonight! 2) Falstaff will be repeated on Apr. 5 at 7:30 pm and April 7 at 2 pm. Make the trip! This one’s more than worth your time! 3) These compete with Raleigh’s “shabby little shocker” (Tosca) but some careful planning can net you both in one weekend.