If one ever needed an argument for an ensemble opera company all the evidence is to be found in the 2013 Opera Australia production of Falstaff!
This late Verdi opera resembles Wagner in musical approach more than in Verdi’s grander operas. Except in the final Act there are few set piece arias. Consistency of tone and line in the ongoing dramatic conversation is absolutely necessary in this opera. It is a domestic comedy that not only references Shakespeare but also Mozart, especially the Marriage of Figaro.
Balancing comedy and music
There is so much comedy in this opera that there is a risk that the humour will overwhelm the music. This is particularly true of the Falstaff character. The opera really stands or falls on the performance of Falstaff. There is a lot of scope of playing it for laughs and thus underplay the musical demands of the part. Warwick Fyfe – known for his gift for comedic roles – balances the comedy and the musicality beautifully. It is a ‘big sing’ and he does it admirably and by the end we regard him as more as silly old bugger rather than a sleaze bag.
The ensemble work of the Merry Wives (Amelia Farrugia, Jacqueline Dark and Domenica Mathews) and daughter (Lorina Gore) is strong feature, and Domenica Matthews has some wonderful individual moments with her gorgeous chocolate rich mezzo and her gift for visual comedy. And of course the ever-agile Kaneen Breen keeps us alert (with Jud Arthur as an able sidekick), although sometimes I wish he could be given parts that foregrounds his vocal agility without being over reliant on his extraordinary gift for pantomime.
An old style production
The design contrasts the dirty rust to vivid yellow in the first two acts with the black, white and red of the final act removed from the cramped insestuousness of Elizabethan domesticity. Perhaps a little less literalness might have worked better. Nevertheless the performers managed to negotiate the narrow spaces – at pace – without collision.
We do not see much of the chorus until the third act and then they spend much of the time on their knees. Visually effective but a bit hard on the singers!
Orchestra shone when the lights didn’t
The orchestra under Antony Walker did well even when the lights failed and they played entirely by feel and memory. The surtitles failed for a much longer period. Fortunately one could concentrate on the beautiful musical conversation on stage without distraction.
The B team gave an A class performance
Apparently this group of performers was called the ‘B’ team within the company, as there were no big name overseas singers in the cast. With the concerted move by Opera Australia management to break the long-standing limitation on imported singers, this production is a suitable monument to an ensemble company whose members have been largely developed within the distinctive developmental structure of Opera Australia. May that approach continue despite concerted efforts to end it and turn the company into a ‘fly-in, fly-out operation.