in: Reviews

January 23, 2012

BYSO Shines in Verdi’s Shakespeare

by

Conductor Federico Cortese with (L-R) Neil Ferreira, Bardolfo; Melissa Parks, Mistress Quickly; Maria Todaro, Meg Page; Caitlin Lynch, Alice Ford; Louis Otey -kneeling, Sir John Falstaff with H&H Chorus (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Yesterday’s performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge was one of the most exciting musical events I’ve attended in years. All parts of this operatic performance were scintillating, but the most astounding aspect was the accomplishment of the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras under Federico Cortese’s direction. The BYSO, established under the umbrella of the Boston University College of Fine Arts, has served to train young orchestra players in the greater Boston area since 1958.

Confession at the outset: most Italian opera fails to interest me much, and I recognize this as a critical failing, so let no one upbraid me for not being an expert. But Falstaff is a resplendent exception which I love without reservation. Falstaff is a masterpiece among masterpieces, and fascinating testimony to a great composer’s ability to compose better and better the older he gets. As one who had spent his life writing for the opera theater and mastering perfectly its every necessity, Verdi was able to finish writing his last and, in the opinion of many, greatest work when he was 80 years old. Apart from the very early and unsuccessful Giorno di regno (King for a day, 1840), Falstaff, premiered in 1893, is Verdi’s only comic opera. (I recall reading somewhere that the leader of the cello section at the premiere was a young man named Arturo Toscanini.) Falstaff precisely matches music to drama, and its libretto, by Arrigo Boito, himself a veteran operatic composer, has brought out the humor, the pathos, the humanity, and the extraordinary characterization that radiates from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor with amazing poetic accuracy; all of these catalyzed Verdi’s musical imagination to a degree that even the composer himself might not have predicted, considering that he had wanted to retire permanently from operatic composition after Otello in 1887 but finally agreed to write Falstaff after his wife and Boito nagged him into it.

Caitlin Lynch, Alice Ford; Maria Todaro, Meg Page; Louis Otey, Falstaff; Anya Matanovi, Nannetta (Michael J. Lutch photo)

The score of Falstaff is marked by such rapid tempo and textural lightness throughout that only those with excellent vocal technique and long experience should attempt to sing it.  The demands on the voice are not those of endurance, as in Wagner, nor of vocal range and volume, as in grand opera or Rossini, but of effortless precision and clarity. The orchestra matches these demands with its own extremes of technical virtuosity and precise texture. Verdi’s orchestral writing in this opera is mostly gossamer-light, with never an unnecessary note, and only as many instruments as the music itself demands, whether in pianississimo textures or the loudest tutti, and much of it proceeding at dizzying speed, especially in Act II. There are no big high-C arias in Falstaff, nor indeed any set pieces longer than a short song, because the whole quicksilver dramatic development is matched by the musical setting at every instant, with dozens of abrupt changes of tempo and texture.

I mention all this because Sunday’s performance was extraordinary in every way. The singers are all young but seasoned operatic professionals. The orchestra, which Federico Cortese directed with total concentration, comprised two groups, the Sinfonietta and the Camerata, from the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras, the first playing Act I and the first scene of Act II, and the second the remainder of the opera.  My amazement at the excellence of this ensemble never faltered. Their precise, unified, spirited, fearless, wonderfully musical playing would have done credit to any opera orchestra in the world, maybe even the Met or the Vienna State Opera.  In all my years growing up in greater Boston I never heard a student orchestra play even half as well as this one.  Nothing ever dragged or stumbled, and I frequently saw how attentive the players were to Cortese’s precise beat. Above all, the entire company, singers and orchestra alike, showed a perfect understanding of what was going on and what everything was supposed to sound like. I should have been prepared for this, because of what I was told about the same orchestra’s dazzling performance of Verdi’s Macbeth last year, which I didn’t hear.

Louis Otey, Falstaff and Jeremy Milner, Pistola (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Sanders Theatre has fine but sometimes complex acoustics and isn’t ideally suited to an operatic staging. This performance was semi-staged, with costumes and a few props, and it succeeded perfectly without scenery. Having the orchestra on stage meant that adjusting balances could be problematic, but I was able to hear almost everything, and the supertitles projected above the stage worked out very well except in simultaneous dialogue (this problem may never be fully solved anywhere). Hats off to the first-rate cast of singers: Louis Otey (Sir John Falstaff), Edward Parks (Ford), Caitlin Lynch (Alice Ford), Steve Sanders (Fenton), Anya Matanovi? (Nannetta), Maria Todaro (Meg Page), Melissa Parks (Mistress Quickly), Peter Tantsits (Dr. Caius), Neil Ferreira (Bardolfo), and Jeremy Milner (Pistola).  These artists are busy all over the world, from the Met and City Center to Santa Fe and La Scala and Shanghai, and obviously enjoyed working with an orchestra of not-yet professionals in a strangely-shaped hall.

Here are only a few details about the orchestra, though I could mention many more. At the beginning of Act III, while the chilled and dripping Falstaff snarls in anger at the hostile world, there is a gloomy low-register melody in trombone octaves. The score calls for a bass trombone at the bottom of this, but its low notes clearly demand a contrabass instrument, of the hard-to-find Italian type called a cimbasso. I didn’t hear those notes and I don’t think they were even there, but in truth I didn’t miss them, and to have had a tuba play them might have been too ponderous. The horn section, five players sharing four parts, sounded rich and confident throughout, especially in widely-spaced textures (two octaves and a fifth apart at one point), and in several places where there is a musical pun, when “horns” signify cuckoldry (“e lo cornifico”). And I especially liked what Verdi does with the lonely piccolo in soft textures; none of the usual top-register shrieks for this ottavino, which was clearly and precisely heard at unexpected but telling moments. The part for a single harp, in the fairy music in III/2, was shared and sometimes doubled with a second harp in this performance, and the added volume was welcome. But the nigh-flawless playing of the strings was perhaps the most remarkable part of the orchestral performance; even in Allegro presto and agitato, the notes flying like trapezes over the entire range, they never fell behind by a microsecond, retaining their full expressiveness throughout.

Falling on hard times, Boston may have lost one of its good opera companies; but this Falstaff, by rejoinder, was wonderful reaffirmation of what can happen in opera here with a carefully assembled and expertly trained group of enthusiastic young people can do to keep opera alive.  The Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras deserve our heartiest congratulations and thanks.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony. His most recent book is Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony. His website is here.

2 Comments

  1. The performance was really great!

    Comment by Caroline — January 24, 2012 at 4:08 pm

  2. After reading this review I felt compelled to add a bit.
     
    BYSO Falstaff pleasantly surprises and exceeds expectations.
     
    On 23 Jan. 2012, I think I found myself being probably the only person in nearly sold out Sanders Theater who didn’t know anybody whether singing or in the orchestra and came for actual performance. In regards to the performance of the actual opera, not the orchestral accompaniment which I agree with the reviewer I thought sounded pretty professional… both Acts. :) Now as to singing.
     
    In my experience, student productions in Boston area can often exceed your expectations. I remember a year or two ago I was literally blown away by Boston Conservatory’s Xerxes and I Capuleti e i Montecchi. When going to see I was under impression that I’m going to be seeing a complete student production. The reality proved to be a pleasant surprise. BYSO was able to attract first rate singers, many with experience in major opera houses. 
     
    Falstaff truly is a visual opera. Among opera aficionados it is often considered “an acquired taste”, musically it’s not as free-flowing as Traviata or Trovatore, or as imposing as Aida. Many think of it as first 20th century opera, the one that propelled Stravinsky and Barber and the like. That’s why some get disappointed when hearing it for the first time. After all, they are expecting Verdi! I admit, for a little while I was one of those people. But once you “get” Falstaff however, it turns into the love affair.
     
    Taking all this into account and never seeing Falstaff live before I decided not to bother some of my friends with accompanying me to the outing. That was a mistake because on the stage Falstaff turned out to be?totally different experience. It’s expressive, funny and easily accessible, even as one’s introduction to opera. Additionally here, the performance was basically professional.
     
    For the most part the signing was fantastic. Louis Otey’s went through the title role without a glitch and was able to control his beautiful and naturally dark bass-baritone beating it into the comic submission and making the audience giggle over and over again. Otey’s comic abilities are second to none. Still I somehow could feel that Otey would really unfold in a more serious role. I’d love to see Otey as Mefistofele, and I know I’d never miss if he returns to Boston as Rigoletto.  
     
    Melissa Parks breezed through Quickly as though their was nothing to it. Ms. Parks’s full, dry mezzo was perfect for the part but from purely acting perspective, I wish there was a bit more of a naughty sprinkle in Ms. Parks’s eyes, especially when she was trying to convince Falstaff to come to see Alice at home, and then again in the cemetery. The role of Quickly is a tailor-made vehicle for the opera comedienne but I felt that in duets between Quickly and Falstaff it was Otey who basically carried the comedy. 
     
    I really enjoyed Edward Parks in the role of Ford. He looked the part, he posses rich sexy baritone. I read on-line that Parks was “one of the Grand National winners of the 2008 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions”. I’m not surprised. Still he looked more believable when singing ‘È sogno o realtà?’ then later in the cemetery. I have a feeling that one more rehearsal would’ve been of service to him in this department.
     
    The other beautiful voice was the one of Steve Sanders as Fenton. Oh, what a silky gorgeous tenor Mr. Sanders possesses! When I close my eyes him singing ‘Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola’ would fill my ears with pure wonderful splendor. When I opened my eyes however, I found it truly hard to imagine this power of the man as fragile boyish Fenton. If I were to find out that Mr. Sanders supplements his income as a bouncer or maybe even boxed his way though college, that wouldn’t surprise me in the least. But I found his fearing Mr. Parks somehow eh-eh… artificial :) 
     
    The weak link to me was Ms. Anya Matanovic as Nannetta. While visually I found it very hard to keep my eyes off Ms. Matanovic, and consequently found it very easy to picture myself in the role of Fenton, I found Ms. Matanovic’s voice rough, I thought she had problems with her upper register, and I truly hope that this was her “off-day”. Ms. Matanovic’s acting was fine. She definitely looks the part. But her singing… eh-eh… you know. 
     
    To me the highlight and the great revelation of this production however was a power of the performance from Caitlin Lynch in the role of Alice Ford! From now on, I will be following this singer. There should be a great future ahead of her! I already got my hands on Ms. Lynch singing Donna Anna on April 14, 2010 in Detroit and I intend to be looking for more of this soprano.
     
    What a special singer! What a pure angelic voice! And what a superior actress! Naughty, feminine, cute and funny – Ms. Lynch made me believe that she indeed was one of the notorious Merry Wives of Windsor! Whether in opera or in Hollywood – I’m sure Ms. Lynch would be a hit! Go to Europe Caitlin! Even to Russia! I’m sure no matter where you’d be you’d match up just fine! I have little doubt that at some point soon Ms. Lynch would be “discovered” by both La Scala and The Met! When this happens I’m sure I’d be bragging to my friends that “I remember seeing her way back then she was still doing the small circuit – blah-blah-blah-blah-blah”J
     
    The rest of the cast was fine. Maria Todaro has a smooth beautiful mezzo and was a fine Meg. Peter Tantsits (Dr. Caius), Neil Ferreira (Bardolfo), and Jeremy Milner (Pistola). looked very believable in their relatively minor roles. They were funny, nice voices – nothing that I noticed that I didn’t like.  
     
    All-n-all, all singers seem to really enjoy themselves, conductor Federico Cortese had a tight grip on the proceedings and did a splendid job with an orchestra. I myself am not a musician so I may not catch the nuance, moreover when I’m at the opera I concentrate mostly on singing but to my taste the orchestra played very well. During the intermission I met an acquaintance whose daughter plays in the orchestra and she informed me that the orchestra would look much different in the second Act as oppose to the first Act. I didn’t notice a thing. In general I believe that Youth orchestras often sound even better then large professional orchestras, yes, often including our own Boston Symphony, just because the kids try harder. So when I see an opera production accompanied by a Youth orchestra, for me it’s usually “a go”.
     
     

    Comment by Arkadinho — January 25, 2012 at 2:17 pm

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