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Review: Flirtatious 'Falstaff' has the audience swooning

| Monday, Oct. 26, 2009

Laughter rang out repeatedly Saturday night at the Benedum Center, Downtown, when Pittsburgh Opera presented the first of four performances of Giuseppe Verdi's "Falstaff."

The production features a fabulous portrayal of the title role by baritone Mark Delavan, who conveyed dimensions of his character that went far beyond the immensity of his girth. In addition, Paula Williams' staging was full of perceptive comic touches as Falstaff is repeatedly skewered in his attempt to seduce two of the merry wives of Windsor. Williams was equally responsive to sincere young love that is Verdi's foil to Falstaff's absurd machinations.

Dissolute, cynical and funny, Sir John Falstaff was such a hit in the two parts of William Shakespeare's historical play "Henry IV" that the playwright was called upon to create another play featuring the fat old knight. And much of the laughter Saturday night was thanks to Shakespeare and Verdi's brilliant librettist Arrigo Boito.

Delavan made Falstaff come alive in a way that a Shakespearean actor and other singers might envy. It is a mature interpretation, sensitive to Falstaff's qualities other than buffoonishness, and as richly nuanced as unforgettable characters we meet in life are prone to be.

"Falstaff" is an unusual opera in many ways, and people expecting long arias are in for a surprise. It feels more like a play and much of the singing is in a speaking style with brief and wonderful melodic passages providing lift. Delavan's singing was magnificent. He has a big voice in excellent shape from top to bottom, and he uses it astutely. Top includes the falsetto with which Falstaff imitates the women he imagines falling for him.

The women were an excellent ensemble consisting of Veronica Villarroel as Alice Ford, Katherine Drago as Meg Page, Lindsay Ammann as Dame Quickly and Shannon Kessler Dooley as Nannetta, a young woman in love with Fenton.

In the first scene of Act II, Alice and Meg receive love letters from Falstaff and have great fun in part because he's mixed up the letters and envelopes. But it is one of the countless brilliant strokes of Verdi's opera that he wrote a drop-dead gorgeous tune for the reading of Falstaff's letter -- and followed it with the four women bursting out in laughter.

James Flora was delightful as Fenton, a fine romantic partner for Nannetta. The way the stage director has him swoon when Nannetta finishes the little couplet they sing at farewells was how the melody should make you feel.

Conductor Antony Walker did rather well conducting his first "Falstaff." He was alert to musical jokes and well-coordinated with stage action. And the opera's many quick changes of pace were effectively conveyed to the orchestra, which played the very tricky score well.

However, Walker did rush the opening of both the first and second acts. A quick tempo robs the music of energy because it doesn't allow time for accents between the main beats to have the weight they need. There also were a few tempi that were too slow.

In the big orchestral tuttis, when the entire orchestra is playing, Walker was more cautious in sonority than boisterous. His approach will undoubted grow as he conducts his second, third and fourth performances in what is a very successful production.

Additional Information:

'Falstaff'

Presented by: Pittsburgh Opera

When: 7 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $10.50-$140.50

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666

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