Comic Operas receive “peerless productions” at Santa Fe

Falstaff and Barber of Seville each worth the trip down I-25

By Peter Alexander Aug. 10 at 11:08 p.m.

Verdi’s Falstaff is the greatest of all comic operas. The combination of Shakespeare and Verdi at the very peak of his musical powers have produced a masterwork of scintillating humor and extraordinary beauty. And in baritone Quinn Kelsey, currently starring in the Santa Fe Opera’s splendid co-production with Scottish Opera, it has found an ideal interpreter. The rest of the terrific ensemble cast nearly reaches his level, with Elena Villalón’s Nanetta especially noteworthy.

McVicar’s Shakespearean set for Falstaff, with part of Santa Fe’s excellent ensemble cast. All photos by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera.

Sir David McVicar’s set, a simple wooden structure of two stories and multiple staircases, recalls the theater of Shakespeare’s time. Furniture and props are moved on and off to change the scene from The Garter Inn—opening in Falstaff’s bedroom with various hangers-on under and in the bed with the portly knight—to the garden and the interior of Ford’s home, to Windsor Park. Only the last scene with Hearn’s Oak hulking behind the framework of the set posed any difficulties.

“Rollicking chaos” with Nanetta (Elena Villalón) and Fenton (Eric Ferring) behind the screen while the men prepare to pounce.

As stage director, McVicar showed a deft comic touch with individual characters. Moments of rollicking chaos, as in the first scene in Falstaff’s bedroom and the second act climax with Ford searching his home while Falstaff hides in the famous laundry basket, were especially delightful.

Occasionally McVicar supplied extraneous touches that distracted from the principal singers, such as bustling servants and a gardener raking the ground upstage from the merry wives at the outset of the second scene. At such moments, directors should trust the music and dispense with superfluous ideas. Happily, the distractions were few, and otherwise the direction served the comedy well.

The costumes were generic Elizabethan with comic touches, such as Falstaff’s grotesque codpiece when he goes to visit Mistress Ford. Individual touches helped identify the multiple characters who appear in the ensembles, including a witches hat for Mistress Quickly—who not coincidentally is costumed as a witch in the Windsor Park scene—and delicious pink and red for Nanetta, exchanged for bridal white at the end. 

Falstaff (Quinn Kelsey) cowers before the extravagantly costumed ensemble in the Hearn’s Oak scene.

The dazzling variety of costumes for the final scene at Hearn’s Oak included everything from a moon-faced queen, a horse and a demon borrowed from Hieronymus Bosch. This might be overkill, but I for one relished every excess in this scene. It is, after all, the culmination of a lavish comedy. It is a scene about excess, the excess that drives Falstaff and Ford both to realize their overreach and accept being the brunt of the joke. Any comic opera that ends with a comic fugue deserves climactic excess.

Under conductor Paul Daniel the Santa Fe Opera orchestra played brilliantly. Daniel led the players through every twist and turn of the score, bringing out the full force of the winds when appropriate, but also moderating the gentle moments. The brief, distilled glimpses of love music between Nanetta and Fenton were handled with grace and tenderness, the delicacy of the ensemble scenes presented on the point of a needle.

Quinn Kelsey as Falstaff.

Kelsey presented a virtual masterclass on vocal control and interpretation. He was boisterous and full of braggadocio at the outset, but singing with grace, even tenderness if required, full of extravagant self-pity after his bath in the Thames, by turn terrified, indignant and hilariously self-mocking at the end. He has mastered every nuance of the role and will doubtless claim a place as one of the great interpreters of Falstaff.

Villalón brought a lovely, soaring soprano to Nanetta, floating gently to her top notes in her exchanges with Fenton, then exercising restrained control of the music and the stage in her Act III aria. She was a Nanetta that the audience could fall in love with, as they should.

Elena Villalón and Eric Felling as the love interests Nanetta and Fenton.

Eric Felling was a winning Fenton, bringing a ringing sound and eloquent phrasing to his Act III aria. Alexandra LoBianco negotiated the role of Alice Ford nimbly, singing with a bright sound that could either blend with the other wives or soar above the full ensemble. As a comedienne, she was clearly in control of the gathering plot from beginning to end. As her husband, Ford (or “Master Fountain”), Roland Wood was comically on target, fitting well into the ensembles and eliciting sympathy in his soliloquy. His voice was sometimes pinched, with a occasional hint of a wobble. 

The other characters handled their comic assignments well. Brian Frutiger was a satisfying Dr. Caius, filing well a smaller part that in lesser hands can too easily be overlooked. Megan Marino sang Meg Page prettily. Thomas Cifullo and Scott Conner were well matched comic partners as Bardolfo and Pistola, enlivening every scene with their hijinks. As Mistress Quickly, Ann McMahon Quintero made her character real, in spite of lacking the hefty chest voice that would project better over the orchestra. 

Alice Ford and Meg Page receive identical letters from Falstaff: l-r Megan Marino (Meg), Elena Villalón Nanetta), Alexandra LoBianco (Alice) and Ann McMahon Quintero (Mistress Quickly).

But it is first of all Falstaff, and then the ensemble performance that carry the opera. Nothing showed the SFO’s success better than the final ensemble with Falstaff starting the great fugue “All the world’s a joke and only the jolly are wise,” everyone joining in turn with a perfect moral for a perfect comedy. As the performance came to a joyous climax, the musical summation of Verdi’s life in the theater, no one could leave without a feeling of satisfaction.

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Close behind Falstaff as a great comic opera is Rossini’s Barber of Seville (Aug. 6). It doesn’t have Shakespeare as a source, but it does have Beaumarchais, who provided the literary source for two great operas in Barber and Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro. And while Rossini’s opera features the standard comic situations of the time, the composer’s skill and wit raise Barber into the highest realms of musical entertainment—a level that is exuberantly matched by SFO’s hilarious production.

Dr. Bartolo’s house, mustache in place, on the Santa Fe Opera stage.

Santa Fe’s set is a marvel of invention. Upon entering the theater, the audience is greeted by a large topiary mustache at the back of the stage. During the overture, a sculptured head rises from behind and below the stage. The night I attended the audience applauded and laughed with delight when the head proved a perfect fit to the mustache. Together head and mustache moved down to the middle of the stage, representing the façade of Dr. Bartolo’s house, with the head later revolving 180° to reveal the house’s interior.

Almaviva (Jack Swanson) masquerading as a soldier.

That is only a small part of the inventiveness of the production, which uses period settings and costumes spiced with anachronistic details, including a plastic garbage bag, a computer (with an orange instead of apple as logo), cell phones and headphones. When disguised as the student Lindoro, Count Almaviva wears jeans, a down jacket and a “Sevilla” hoodie. Later he sports aviator glasses when disguised as a soldier, and enters Bartolo’s house in the final act as a Mormon missionary, singing “Peace and happiness be with you.”

Hilarity is piled upon hilarity, all in the gleeful spirit of Rossinian comedy. Thanks to the direction and design team of Stephen Barlow (stage direction) and Andrew D. Edwards (scene and costume design) the comedy never flags, sometimes pushing the limits but never undermining the plot and music, nor crossing the line into self-indulgence. I cannot remember a more raucously entertaining evening of operatic comedy.

Emily Fons (Rosina), Joshua Hopkins (Figaro) and Jack Swanson (Almaviva).

The cast had full command of the Rossinian style, with Jack Swanson (Almaviva) and Emily Fons (Rosina) particularly agile and clean in their delivery of the flighty lines that sink many a tenor and mezzo. Swanson had great comic energy and onstage chemistry with Joshua Hopkin’s self-possessed, strutting Figaro. Fons captured attention anytime she was on stage and followed her character’s emotional twists and turns from boredom, to confidence, to (briefly) fury, to joy at opera’s end.

Kevin Burdette (Bartolo) climbs the wall, with Rosina (Emily Fons) above; Almaviva (Jack Swanson), Berta (Murella Parton), Figaro (Joshua Hopkins) and Basilio (Nicholas Newton) below.

Kevin Burdette as Dr. Bartolo proved a master of physical comedy as well as a versatile and polished singer. Far from the stiff diplomat he played in M. Butterfly, he was agile and flexible, singing while attempting yoga poses (more anachronistic merriment), while climbing the walls (literally) or sliding out of a chair. Every moment he was on stage was a potential moment of unexpected laughs.

Nicholas Newton (subbing for Ryan Speedo Green) was vocally imposing and on target as the pompous but venal Don Basilio, always available to the highest bidder. He provided the best updated joke of the entire show, producing his “Orange”-brand computer as he sang about how to harness the rapid spread of slander.

Berta tales a star turn (Murella Parton).

SFO apprentice artist Murella Parton brought energy and liveliness to the role of Berta, Bartolo’s housekeeper. Always a figure of calm and good sense in the midst of the comic madness, she exploded out of her shell and enchanted the audience during her one aria, when she unexpectedly became a figure of glamour, swirling in a sparkly dress accompanied by four top-hatted dancers.

Conductor Iván López-Reynoso elicited a crisp and transparent sound from the orchestra. A worthy partner of the singers, he kept a brisk and sparkling pace that matched their comic energy. Once again the orchestra outdid itself.

In these two comic masterpieces, Falstaff and Barber of Seville, the Santa Fe Opera has delivered two peerless productions. Each is well worth the trip to New Mexico. If there are tickets left by the time you read this, they may be found HERE.