A fat, drunken English knight in the New Mexico desert

By Lawrence A. Johnson

SANTA FE. You drive the 58 dusty miles from Albuquerque to Santa Fe across a barren desert landscape ringed by mountains and spotted with sagebrush and Indian casinos. From Santa Fe, you head several miles northwest, exit the main highway and climb a narrow, winding two-lane road. Soon you reach your destination, the unlikeliest of locales for the country’s leading summer opera festival, where an open-air theatre affords spectacular views of the desert sunset while experiencing Mozart and Verdi.

Now in its 52nd season, Santa Fe Opera has managed to sustain artistic and commercial success for half a century, helmed by visionary leaders like John Crosby and Richard Gaddes. The company has earned a reputation for smart, informed casting of young singers and veterans, and a similarly well-judged mix of standard repertoire spiced by the contemporary. With Charles MacKay of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis coming aboard as new general director this fall and Edo de Waart recently named to the post of chief conductor starting in 2009, even in these perilous times for the arts, the festival’s long-term health seems assured.

Santa Fe Opera’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff opened July 29 to grumbles from local mavens, but Monday night’s repeat provided little room to cavil, with a spirited, witty and superbly sung performance.

Did any octogenarian ever bid farewell to his art with a more youthful and effervescent work than Verdi did with Falstaff? The composer’s commedia lirica of the misadventures of Shakespeare’s aged, corpulent, drink- and wench-loving Sir John is, as Toscanini put it, “quicksilver from beginning to end,” a light-footed scherzo as engaging and affectionate as Verdi’s dramas are bleak and unforgiving.

In a graceful traditional staging, scenic designer Allen Moyer provides a ramshackle clapboard Garter Inn with a jousting lance sticking jauntily out of the wall, dark-paneled domesticity for Ford’s house, and the usual arboreal moonlit milieu for Windsor Forest.

The title role is being shared by Laurent Naouri and Anthony Michaels-Moore who was on stage Monday night. The English baritone doesn’t possess the sonorous ballast of a true bass, reflecting the trend toward casting lighter voices in the role, with more well-rounded acting instincts for the well-rounded protagonist.

Michaels-Moore made a fine comic figure, vital and lovable, whether commiserating with his young page (a charming Trevor Wilson) or doing a little dance in anticipation of his liaison with Alice. Others have found more pathos in Act 3 after the rather cruel pranks played on him, but Michaels-Moore conveyed a strongly sung Falstaff with a lyrical touch, putting across the bluster yet avoiding buffoonery.

Similarly, as his nemesis Ford, Franco Pomponi negotiated the line between comedy and vocalism with an imposing, firmly focused baritone. The Windsor ladies were a spunky and for once, consistently sung band of conspirators: Nancy Maultsby’s Mistress Quickly, Kelley O’Connor’s Meg Page and, especially, Claire Rutter’s Alice Ford.

Laura Giordano nearly stole the evening as Nannetta. With the grace of a ballet dancer, the Italian soprano personified the vivacious young girl in love, her silvery voice resplendent in Sul fil d’un soffio etesio. Her Fenton, tenor Norman Reinhardt, was an aptly charismatic partner.

Wilbur Pauley and Keith Jameson as Pistol and Bardolph proved suitably scruffy as Falstaff’s boisterous no-account companions. Director Kevin Newbury avoided longeurs and kept the complex stage action on track. Conductor Paolo Arrivabeni paced the score idiomatically, with fine clarity in the fugal choruses, capturing the elegance and mercurial momentum, as well as the elfin delicacy of the fairy music.

Falstaff runs through August 23. Tickets are $25-$180. 505-986-5900, 800-280-4654; www.santafeopera.org.

[Pictured: Claire Rutter as Alice Ford and Anthony Michaels-Moore as Falstaff. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.]

Posted in opera review, Performances

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Tue Aug 5, 2008
at 10:19 pm
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