Some Teachable (and Cherishable) Moments

University Opera’s Falstaff a worthy addition to all the Shakespeare celebrations

I have a unique—if somewhat fuzzy—memory of the first time I saw Verdi’s final masterpiece, Falstaff. It was the very first opera I’d ever seen, it was at the Metropolitan Opera, no less—and painful to admit that the music in general did not make a lasting impression. The Chagall murals and crystal chandeliers of the Lincoln Center jewel—and the fact that the stage was big enough to use a three-story house as part of the set—were the things that really stuck with me.

Of course, over the years (that was 1968), I heard and saw the comic gem on recordings and videos now and then, and came to harbor an enormous respect for the work (as opposed to the gushing enthusiasm I show for operas that I “love”). So when I saw that University Opera was presenting Falstaff to open their season, I did a little eyebrow raising.

Thanks principally to Paul Rowe, David Ronis and James Smith, I can now gush a little.

A great deal of what makes the work so tricky is that it just flows in a nearly seamless sequence of sung conversation and banter; there is virtually nothing like a “greatest hits” aria or duet to be found. Yet the music is pure magic, brilliant in its unobtrusive construction, and therefore all the more treacherous, especially for young performers.

Frankly, I don’t think it could be pulled off at any music school or conservatory with a student in the title role, but having Paul Rowe tackle the part meant that University Opera had a fighting chance to make this special. Best known locally for his teaching and as artistic director of the Madison Early Music Festival, Rowe proved a vocally reliable and rascally lovable Sir John. It is a role that can easily cross the line from broad comedy to parody, but Rowe gave us a nimble portrayal of a has-been who refuses to accept how far past his prime he is. (Rowe is pictured above, with Sarah Kendall who appeared Sunday as Alice; photo courtesy of Bob Marshall).

With Rowe’s Falstaff at the center, director David Ronis again revealed his ability to elicit believable farce from his young cast, and took advantage of the stretches for the expected scurrying around that takes place at the ends of the second and third acts. Ronis has served as interim director the last couple of seasons, and we are glad that he is now officially the inaugural Karen K. Bishop Director of University Opera.

What Ronis worked with was Steffen Silvis’ conceit as dramaturg that the once-boon companion to Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV is now an over-the-hill schemer in the not-quite golden age of Hollywood, circa early1930s. I’ve always tried to be open-minded about the reconfiguration of an opera’s setting and context, but more often than not find them problematic at best. Happy to report that this one worked exceptionally well, with the updated elements denying nothing of the Verdi/Boito original adaptation of the Bard’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.

And the third star goes to James Smith (along with the UW Symphony Orchestra). One of the caveats of a University Opera production is to readjust one’s expectations of what the orchestra can deliver—but this time the ensemble of nearly 50 players were flat-out marvelous. The strings in particular, faced with so many passages of delicate balance and precision, did themselves proud.

As for the other singing principals, Jose Daniel Muniz demonstrated a very promising tenor voice as Fenton; Emily Weaver was a sweet Nannetta as the object of his affections. Yanzelmalee Rivera, as Alice, gave us nicely inflected phrases particularly in Act II. The quartet of women (add Courtney Kayser as Meg and Rebecca Buechel as Quickly to the pair already mentioned) were well balanced in their concerted quartet stretches.

I usually attend the Sunday matinee of University Opera’s three performances; it’s often a good fit for my schedule, and a chance to see the “other” singers in any roles that were double cast. At the last minute I had to change my plans, and thanks to the behind the scenes staff for making it possible for me to attend Tuesday night. I had a feeling that it was not to be missed—and Paul Rowe and colleagues/students made the case that they could tackle one of the best teaching operas—and give their audiences some moments to cherish.

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