Anyone who doubts that quality opera can be any and all of the following — campy, raucous, sleazy, self-mocking, groovy, tacky, immoderate, compatible with beer and ice cream — should seize the opportunity to be proven wrong at Boston Opera Collaborative’s continuing run of Falstaff next weekend. All of these adjectives were applicable in the best possible way to the June 17 performance at Davis Square’s Somerville Theatre, a refurbished vaudeville house (and movie theater) whose colorful glitz provided the perfect backdrop to a ‘70s-retro evening that mixed impressive vocal color and agility with lots of nylon and hip gyrations.
On the subject of venue, I cannot fail to emphasize what a pleasure not only the décor but the acoustics were, after having experienced several previous BOC productions in the concrete bunker-like auditorium at MassArt. With few exceptions, every vocal line at Somerville Theatre projected clearly and cleanly. The BOC orchestra, led by music director Mischa Santora, realized the intricate score with guts and alacrity, providing a support that was satisfyingly rich and bass-weighted but never overwhelming. This was also due no doubt to the deep and narrow (and newly reopened) pit into which they gamely squeezed themselves, but many snippets of Verdi’s clever orchestration — a plaintive English horn solo during a love duet, satirical wedding march music for strings, pompous closing fanfares — fortunately escaped the confines.
BOC does not make life any easier for itself by double-casting all the major roles, but Saturday night’s leads still inhabited their roles with confidence, skill, and style. Bearing the brunt of comic and philosophical responsibility was baritone Dongkyu Oh as the title character, who, pitted against the derision and subversion of the entire rest of the cast, acquitted himself marvelously. Oh’s powerful vocal depth provided the necessary counter to his over-the-top stage antics (eyebrows, tongue, and hips working tirelessly), giving him the larger-than-life persona necessary to reveal Falstaff’s true nature — not merely a clown but an unapologetic embodiment of social vice. In this light, one can see the ensemble’s mob-ish attack on Falstaff as a reaction to the fear of their own unsavory sides, and I for one enjoy the sort of self-effacing philosophy of the ridiculous expressed by Falstaff’s famous closing line, “All the world’s a joke, man is born a joker, and he who laughs last, laughs best.”
Among the other men, Fred C. VanNess, Jr. provided an imposing presence as Dr. Caius, and Nicholas Hebert and Brandon Milardo supported each other nicely as Falstaff’s double-crossing cronies. Seth Grondin as Ford was fighting a losing charisma battle with Oh but still managed to convey a good helping of jealous teeth-gnashing, connivance, and sympathetic frustration. Mario Arévalo and Emily Burr had perhaps the hardest job to pull off in maintaining chemistry throughout the lengthy love-duet spoofs of vacuous young lovers Fenton and Nannetta; however what they lacked in sexiness they made up for with sweet, perfectly timed choreographic details.
Sara Oettinger and Renée Hites were solid as Alice Ford and Meg Page, respectively, but the real scene-stealer in the quartet of women was Desiree Maira as Mistress Quickly, sporting impressively evocative gum chewing and eye rolling. It was a constant struggle to decide whose facial expressions to watch in her scenes with Oh. The women’s opening scene also suffered from the only truly unfortunate aspect of the production, lengthy and silent scene changes that appeared once in each act. I couldn’t help but wonder if even a brief orchestral reprise could have prevented the total loss of momentum between the first two scenes, the women struggling to pick up the action again with a light, rapid patter that didn’t quite match the lusty flamboyance of Falstaff et al. in the first scene.
Energy was abundant, however, in all of the ensemble numbers, and Heidi Lauren Duke justly deserves the dual credits of director and choreographer. Cleverness of movement pervaded all levels of the performance, from ostentatious disco to a simple turn of hand or head. The high level of choreography also demands another nod to Santora and the orchestra; a budget operation like BOC is lucky to have such quality. Santora guided singers, musicians, and dancers through the hairpin turns of the score with grace; even the occasional messy bits seemed enjoyably chaotic rather than uncomfortably dangerous. The high-spirited wackiness of the final ensemble number also saved the third act from succumbing to the flimsiness of the plot (forced marriages being one Shakespearean plot staple that might be simply incapable of smooth transplantation).
For those who enjoy busting the limits of operatic propriety and want both musical excellence and entertainment at the theater, Falstaff will continue to deliver next Friday through Sunday.