When Shakespeare wrote theater, he was writing multi-layered theater for a multi-class audience. On one level, he wrote and adapted Greek tragedy, on another, he wrote drama in the sense that we know today as opera, or even “soap opera,” and on yet another, he was writing essentially ‘Simpson episodes,’ weaving together a combination of slapstick, convoluted plot, and comedic references that were immediately grasped and understood by his contemporaries. Much scholarship in Shakespeare is devoted to translating these references and putting them into historical context, which without the help of well informed actors and a good director can easily be lost on modern audiences. In this spirit Director Heidi Lauren Duke sought to invent a more audience-accessible context for Boston Opera Collaborative’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff, a commedia lirica set to Arrigo Boito’s libretto, adapted from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and scenes from Henry IV, which debuted Friday July 15 at the Somerville Theater. Duke spent time researching the exchange of letters between Verdi and Boito and concluded that neither of them knew any more about Elizabethan England than your average, modern-day, American audience member and very much intended to adapt Shakespeare’s tale into a hot-blooded, Italian romp. In turn, Duke set this production in the ‘70’s “Me Generation” with an Italian-Mafia-Don flare and an ‘every which way, including loose’ style that serves the characters and comedy well, but not necessarily the plot devices.
In Boito’s libretto Falstaff is not only corpulent, but possesses a “wide behind,” and that is how the production begins, at center stage, exhibiting fully (though fully clothed, mind you), Falstaff’s ‘better half.’ Kevin Kees in the role of Falstaff performed vocally both flawlessly and powerfully, but was in considerably better physical shape than the character he portrayed, which called for some low-budget (very low-budget) ‘enhancement’ of his mid-section and derrière. This transformation was wildly accentuated by his opening costume ensemble of Afro wig, lavender threads, and crystal medallion. For the most part, Kees made it work, whereas lesser performers might have gone overboard. His comic movements, including some classic Travolta postures were fluid and well timed.
One of the more dramatic highlights of the production was Jacob A. Cooper’s performance of Ford’s aria at the end of the first scene in Act II. A voice equal in power to Kees, despite a slight strain and falter on the last climactic high note opening night (barely audible under the orchestra) his dramatic, musical interpretation and delivery was a pleasure.
Nicholas Hebert as Bardolfo was especially agile vocally, physically, and in comedic timing. James Liu as Pistola had a sweet goofiness that complemented Bardolfo nicely. Lindsay Conrad as Alice Ford possessed a delightful joyfulness and brightness in her facial expressions. Brooke Larimer as Mistress Quickly was the quintessential contralto-soubrette, Italian-American sexpot, with some of the most convincing physical realization of character in the whole production. Brendan P. Buckley as Fenton possessed a light but lovely tenor voice and the good looks combined with the goofy moves of a horny nineteen-year-old to pull it off. Megan Stapleton as Nanetta Ford was not only a stunning, sexily clad, petite blonde who moved with agile grace, but possessed a coloratura soprano voice with an arching lyricism that shimmered like the moon.
Music Director Mischa Santora deserves commendation for his rhythmically tight orchestral and vocal ensemble. The orchestra and cast’s excellent intonation made the music sparkle with buoyancy and laughter the way the composer clearly intended, while the cast had to be comfortable enough with the score and libretto to seamlessly master a challenging amount of naturalness of conversational banter.
As for the set design and costumes, beware! anyone traumatized by childhood memories of ugly wall paneling; but on a shoestring budget, Ada Smith, Scenic Designer and Andrea Lauer, Costume Designer, effectively achieved their goal of ‘70’s period-appropriate, garishly bad taste. The dual ensemble, visually split down the middle onstage in Act I, the men and the women separately scheming unbeknownst to each other, easily made visually accessible to an audience a large volume of essential plot information.
Although there were directorial elements of Act II in the beginning that were problematic, it developed into one of the more well choreographed and well executed comic scenes of the production. But my suspension of belief withered in Act III when I had to accept a back alley with an inexplicably suspended disco ball as a forest, where instead of being afraid of hoodlums with knives, Falstaff would hide from sexy, masked chicks doing sword dance formations with multi-colored, stretchy tights because he was afraid of fairies and sprites. Nanetta’s stunning lyricism, and Verdi’s highly witty fugue ensemble finale pulled me through, but maybe the plot would have held together better for me if it were Falstaff, not Fenton, leaning against the alley wall smoking a joint (or better yet, if someone were to have dropped acid in the portly rouè’s Port).
Overall, it was a delight to hear an opera in the Somerville Theatre space, acoustically designed for Vaudeville, and kudos to the Somerville Theatre for renovating the orchestra pit, uncovered after seventy-nine years of disuse for BOC’s performance. Boston Opera Collaborative, being a low-budget, nomadic organization, has often had to struggle with the acoustical challenges of spaces either too cavernous or too dry. The rarity of an historically appropriate-sized space, just right for a dramatically accessible and diction-audible, operatic performance is something that not even attendees of highly professional productions often get to enjoy due to the monstrous size of high-end concert halls. Somerville Theatre will be encouraged to host more of these productions, and despite minor flaws and plot inconsistencies of this performance, it was solid, entertaining, and worth attending.
The run will continue for four more dates: July 17, 22,23,24.
Janine Wanée holds a Bachelor’s degree in Voice from USC and Master’s degree in voice from Boston University. She is currently a member of the Copley Singers under Brian Jones.