CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 8 JUNE 2006
Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff. (Richard Sutliff, Falstaff; Kelley O'Connor, Meg Page; Vladimir Chernov, Mr. Ford; Twyla Robinson, Alice Ford; Scott Scully, Bardolfo; Ain Anger, Pistola; Jane Henschel, Mistress Quickly; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.).
The Merry Wives of Windsor has been called Shakespeare's sitcom. For one thing, there's the apparent evidence of hasty construction—the old tradition that Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives to order in fourteen days. Then there's the fact that its central character, Sir John Falstaff, so obviously lacks the specific gravity he has in the Henry IV plays. Above all, there's the sheer zaniness of the whole thing. More than one observer has been moved to compare the Wives of the title to Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz.
The sitcom analogy's equally applicable to this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra performances of Falstaff—Giuseppe Verdi's opera based on Merry Wives. Those comic duos—Lucy and Ethel, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble—are, to be sure, an valuable part of the comic toolkit, and this Falstaff features two well matched pairs. The charmingly giggly Kelley O'Connor, as Meg Page, is a superb foil for the shrewd Alice Ford of Twyla Robinson. (You might be reminded of Betty and Wilma rather than Lucy and Ethel.) As for the second pair—well, Scott Scully and Ain Anger, who play Falstaff's companions Bardolfo and Pistola, not only sound, but look like they were designed to be on stage together.
The performance is a fitting conclusion to a season that's been, though by no means a comedy of errors, perhaps a comedy of terrors—at least where scheduling is concerned. Thursday evening's Falstaff had no less than three late breaking cast changes. Baritone Vladimir Chernov, substituting for Simon Keenlyside, gave a sturdy vocal performance as Mr. Ford, though his big solo at the end of Act 2's first scene might have been more dramatically convincing. Jane Henschel, standing in for Felicity Palmer, brought a winning jocularity to the part of Mistress Quickly.
But it was in the biggest role of all that the production fell just a tiny bit short. Richard Sutliff's characterization of Shakespeare's "huge hill of flesh" is, alas, paper-thin. It's instructive to compare this Falstaff—a cartoonish dimwit—with that of Renato Bruson, whom Sutliff replaced. To be sure, Sutliff will make you laugh. But watch the subtler Bruson, whose 1982 Covent Garden performance is widely available on video, and you'll see a character who's not only funny, but deeply human.
Still, it's a very solid version of Verdi's final opera, kept comically sharp by the alert conducting of Franz Welser-Möst. Even the semi-staged production works well, though the masks in the final scene might leave you scratching your head. Mind you, you might have to strain a bit to see any of the action, tucked away as it is behind the orchestra at the very back of the Severance Hall stage. Then again, perhaps the idea's to make you feel like you're watching a classic sitcom on a vintage TV—you know, one of those great big ones with the really tiny screens.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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