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New York City
March 2004

Falstaff at the Vienna Staatsoper: Another Triumph for Bryn Terfel

Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, which premiered in 1893, when he was just a few months short of his 80th birthday, is a summation of his creative genius. The masterful libretto written by Arrigo Boito, himself a composer, was based largely on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor but also incorporated material from Henry IV. Indeed it can be said without question that Verdi and Boito succeeded in creating one of the greatest operatic adaptations of Shakespearean material; its only serious rival being its predecessor, Othello. Falstaff was written after Verdi’s second opera, the comedy Un Giorn Di Regno, was a resounding failure. Then, at the end of his spectacular career, Verdi presented this second comedy, his crowning achievement. Falstaff is concerned with the approach of old age and the status and position of an individual in his society, and with Falstaff, Verdi may well have been contemplating his own mortality.

This opera is demanding on the performers and orchestra as well as the audience. With one possible exception, there are no expected memorable set-piece arias. The success or failure of any performance depends largely on the bass-baritone who takes the title role and great Falstaffs of the previous generation have included Giuseppe Taddei and Tito Gobbi. Now it appears that the mantle has fallen on the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

His Falstaff is larger than life and no matter where it is performed—in London, New York or Vienna—Terfel’s Falstaff never disappoints. In Vienna, we had the privilege of hearing this great vocal artist in his artistic prime delivering a sumptuous performance. He is also a consummate actor and his towering stage presence is always dominant.

Terfel’s Falstaff is not merely a buffoon. He succeeds in making the knight human and personable and the elements in his complex character of vanity, over-confidence, jealousy and passion on the one hand, with failure and dejection on the other hand, are all there. Indeed, he conveyed all the colors of Verdi’s comic hero. Terfel was particularly impressive at the beginning of Act 3 after extricating himself from the River Thames, when he is absorbed in self-pity and contemplates his old age and the true meaning of his existence. But then, in the finale of the opera, his old confidence returns as he leads the cast in the masterful fugue, “Tutto Nel Mondo e Burla,” (The whole world is but a joke) which concludes the opera.

However, Falstaff is by no means a one-man show. This opera is an ensemble piece, full of duets, trios and quartets. In this production, there were excellent individual performances, in terms of both singing and acting. Baritone Carlos Alvarez was spectacular as the aggrieved husband, Ford, and was particularly impressive in his aria which follows his discovery of what he thinks is his wife’s infidelity.

Also effective were sopranos Krassimira Stoyanova as Alice Ford and Elina Garanca as Meg Page, the ladies Falstaff tries to seduce simultaneously with the same love note. Stoyanova gave a superb performance, her voice being large and rich with a marvelous range of color. Jane Henschel as Dame Quickly was also very satisfying and with her stylistic mezzo voice, she easily negotiated the tricky course that her role demanded and succeeded in pulling off this comic role with great aplomb.

Bori Keszei in her Staatsoper debut as Nanetta and Rainer Trost as Fenton were a sweet-voiced pair of lovers, both ardent and expressive. Michael Roider was a suitably nagging Dr. Cajus, and Herwig Pecoraro and Alfred Sramek as Falstaff’s servants Bardolfo and Pistol also provided some great comic moments coupled with fine singing.

The State Opera orchestra, under Fabio Luisi, delivered an exhilarating performance. Their accompaniment was round, warm and often gorgeous. This is a score that would stand alone and to his credit, Luisi succeeded in accompanying but not outperforming the soloists.

This was a new production by Marco Arturo Marelli. The staging was simple but effective. Falstaff’s abode in the Garter Inn was sub-stage. The rest was at stage level, including the action involving the women Falstaff plots to conquer as well as the young lovers Nanetta and Fenton. Falstaff is dressed in Elizabethan costume whereas the remainder of the cast were in modern dress, which may perhaps have been somewhat overdone, but still served to symbolically indicate that Falstaff is out of touch with reality.

All in all, a most satisfying and enjoyable evening at the Staatsoper, in a production which does them proud.#

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