Seattle Opera shows its youth with Verdi's late-in-life rendering of Falstaff

Peter Kazaras and an impressive cast have fun with the opera that broke with tradition.
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Anya Matanovic (Nannetta) and Noah Baetge (Fenton) in <i>Falstaff</i>. (Rozarii Lynch)

Peter Kazaras and an impressive cast have fun with the opera that broke with tradition.

Seattle Opera is about more than the mainstage productions in McCaw Hall and the periodic Ring cycles that get the full glamour spotlight. The company focuses significant resources on its much-vaunted Young Artists Program as well. Geared toward training professional performers in their 20s to mid-30s, this effort culminates – from the point of view of the public at large, that is – every spring with a full-scale staging at the Meydenbauer Center Theater in Bellevue. The cozy 400-something-seat theater space and non-astronomical ticket prices add to the appeal. This year's showcase was the final opera from Verdi's extraordinarily long career, Falstaff, a conflation of Shakespeare's lightweight The Merry Wives of Windsor with borrowings from the deeply humanistic Henry IV plays. In fact, it was a showcase not just for the young singers but for the man responsible for guiding them, Peter Kazaras, who is also a tenor. (Seattle Opera audiences probably best know him for his portrayal of Loge in the Ring.) Kazaras is rounding out his inaugural season as artistic director of the Young Artists Program – meaning he serves as instructor in acting, auditions singers for the program, and stage directs such events as the Falstaff. Last year he presided over a psychologically gripping rendition of Benjamin Britten's disturbing, brilliant chamber opera, The Turn of the Screw. It was a bold departure from the familiar rep staples normally trotted out for these spring shows. And the new Verdi production clearly reflected his imprint as well. The choice of Falstaff – which premiered in 1893, when Verdi was in his 80th year – might suggest an odd conjunction: Here is a work from the twilight of the composer's career, being performed by a youthful band at the dawn of theirs. Yet one of this opera's miracles is its vigorous sense of self-reinvention. Verdi, through almost every measure, gives an impression of buoyantly rejuvenating his art. After a half century as a "living legend," he breaks free from this premature entombment to unveil an entirely new sound world of rude, gruff noises and farting brass juxtaposed in a phantasmagorical montage alongside strands of melancholy reverie, soaring lyricism, and intricate contrapuntal tapestries. Verdi positively revels in a newfound rush of experimental impulses, overturning a host of operatic assumptions. Even the opera's overall genre (it's subtitled a "commedia lirica") signals a return to the early days of his career, the only other time Verdi presented a comic opera. Its rejection had been a humiliating fiasco for the young composer; with his operatic swan song he now distills the artistic wisdom gathered over a lifetime through the prism of comedy. And – even more to the point – the fun he has doing so is infectious. And the fun of it was what gave this production its momentum (I caught the final performance). While the audience was still settling into their seats, the cast casually milled about the stage listening to the radio, as if on rehearsal break. A young singer dashed down the aisle, frantically shrieking "Where's my costume?" – all before the lights began to dim. When the music finally began, however, mockery of traditional operatic illusionism continued. Designer Donald Eastman's minimalist set of wooden platforms, chairs, sawhorses, moveable closets, and a painted stage curtain had the feel of a theater workshop space. Connie Yun's lighting burned with melodramatic, opera-cliché red in a rage scene and sparkled bright blue as Falstaff was tossed from his hiding place in a laundry basket into the Thames. "Offstage" characters took positions on chairs surrounding the performers (hints of a boxing ring?). When Falstaff demanded notes of assignation be simultaneously delivered to the two women he deludes himself are admirers, his page simply turned around to hand them to the visibly seated Meg and Alice. For the exquisite Windsor Forest scene in the final act, the haunted oak tree around which everyone rallies was represented by a ladder crowned with a raft of suspended chairs as foliage. All this sundering of the fourth wall might have tempted a less-savvy director into imposing a pretentiously neo-Brechtian concept on Verdi's high-jinks. But much of what Verdi himself is up to is about pulling aside the wizard's curtain. Falstaff is replete with self-parody and a dizzyingly kaleidoscopic reprise of the history of Italian opera. The score encompasses swooning bel canto (for the pair of young lovers, Nanetta and Fenton), zany Rossinian ensembles, ecclesiastical cadences, even a raging jealousy monolog that wouldn't be out of place in the mouth of Iago (from Verdi's previous opera, Otello). In other words, his music here is itself in a sense about breaking the fourth wall – or, rather, the illusionistic immersion of surround sound. Kazaras brings a vivid intelligence to his stagings, but – and this is crucial with Falstaff – he grounds it in a gritty sense of theatricality practicality. And this proved to be the evening's real triumph. At the heart of the Young Artists Program is a philosophy that training the next generation of opera performers requires focusing on a lot more than the technicalities of vocal production. It's as significantly about "getting closer to something that is immediate and theatrical," as Kazaras has said – through diction, language, stage movement, engagement with the dramatic situation and characters on stage. The emphasis on physicality here wasn't limited to the corpulent titular character (and this Sir John's pleasures extended beyond his own flesh as he nosedived into bosoms). David Lara's Ford was imperious, both in vocal presence and as he ransacked his house in a fever of suspected cuckoldry. Fenton (the ardent tenor Noah Baetge) and Nanetta (given thrilling color by Anya Matanovic's soprano, especially in her turn as the Fairy Queen) chased about the stage in heat. During the famous fugal finale setting of the motto "everything's a joke," the entire cast stripped away their costumes to reveal the "real" actor. Along with the physical and gestural language, the cast benefited from Kazaras's mania for diction – and, along with it, to an internalized understanding of what they were singing. As Falstaff, Joshua Jeremiah's incredibly crisp diction sizzled with sheer sensuous delight as he conveyed not just the knight's bawdy, oversize indulgences but his distilled experience in the great "honor" monolog. Jeremiah had the confidence to mold this and his third-act ruminations after being enduring the first prank (the toss into the Thames) into powerfully varied and – forgive the pun – fleshed-out character pieces. His disloyal cohorts Pistol and Bardolph got a hilarious reading via Marc Webster's booming bass and the unctuous tenor of Jared Rogers. Ted Schmitz (ominous and menacing as Quint in last year's Screw) gave a lot more character to the fogey Dr. Caius than one often gets. Along with Matanovic's sweetly winning Nanetta, I was especially taken with Caitlyn Lynch's beautiful phrasing, while never missing a beat as the plotting Alice Ford. In fact, the women were especially remarkable for their variety of vocal characterizations. Teresa Herold put her wonderfully resonant deep mezzo to superb use as Mistress Quickly. Sasha Cooke's Meg Page projected a lively stage presence. Adding a dimension to these actors' care with the words were Jonathan Dean's delightfully clever surtitle renderings of Arrigo Boito's text, which itself boldly adapts the Shakespearean original. The fat knight recalls being thin in his youth "in my salad days," while, as he approaches another of his ill-fated love trysts, we are told "something weighty this way comes." Conductor Dean Williamson has been a long-time player with the Young Artists Program, but he seems to mesh sympathetically with Kazaras's detailed, theatrically lived-in approach. Presiding over Jonathan Dove's chamber-orchestra version of the score (with just 15 players, including a solo quintet for the strings–all drawn from the Auburn Symphony), Williamson understood the key is not to smooth over but to emphasize Verdi's sudden gear shifts from raucous slapstick to pure cantabile – an idea also well realized in Kazaras's staging, with frantic ensembles nattering to either side of the young lovers, lost in their own world and wrapped in that theatrical curtain, a thin veil of a dream.


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