It is with no small degree of embarrassment that we confess to not appreciating the charms of Verdi's final opera--not until tonight, that is. Under the stewardship of Artistic Director Martina Arroyo, the program Prelude to Performance once again provided a matchless evening of entertainment, fun and artistic merit to a delighted audience as well as performance opportunities to young singers at the cusp of major careers. Now how does she do all this????
By doing what the Metropolitan Opera, with all its vast resources, cannot. She hires the best talent in the business to coach and direct the young performers in a concentrated program; the ensemble feeling is evident from one moment to the next. We were privileged to attend several master classes and gratified to see how the young artists put their new skills to good use.
Under the astute direction of Matthew Lata, the story made complete sense and every character was well-rounded and believable. Falstaff, as portrayed by the generously proportioned (voice as well as girth) Robert Kerr (photographed by Jen Joyce Davis and seen above), was not just a self-deluding has-been and a figure of scorn; he became an object for our empathy as well. His two down-at-the-heels henchmen, ably sung and hilariously performed by tenor Christopher Longo (Bardolfo) and bass Christian Zaremba (Pistola), kept us in stitches with their hijinks.
Mezzo Nichole Ashley Peyreigne had a marvelously resonant voice and impressive comedic skills as Dame Quickly; we were impressed by the variety of tone she gave to her salutations to Falstaff--"Reverenza" never sounded so good. We were dazzled by the spine-tingling soprano of Nicole Haslett whom we first heard and enjoyed in The Ghosts of Versailles; she gave an outstanding interpretation of a young woman trying to learn something about life from the older housewives--Dame Quickly, Meg Page (a fine mezzo Kiri Parker) and her mother Alice Ford (an equally fine Allyson Herman whom we remember well from Summer and Smoke at Manhattan School of Music). Tenor Brandon Snook, belying his youthful good looks, was made up to look like the cranky old fogey Dr. Caius and sang with distinction. Tenor Youngchul Park, well known to Prelude audiences, was a likable Fenton and did a fine job with one of the very few arias in Falstaff--the meltingly beautiful "Dal labbro il canto". The other aria, sung by baritone Matthew Gamble as Mr. Ford was equally delightful to hear.
Fortunately, Mr. Lata, unlike some of the new directors hired by the Met, made no self-serving attempts to alter time and place. This is very much a 16th c. tale and the Elizabethan costumes designed by Charles Caine were dazzling. See photo of Mr. Kerr's Falstaff above. Not much scenery was necessary but Peter Harrison used a few pieces to convey a sense of atmosphere. We especially enjoyed the laundry hanging out to dry which provided a playground and hiding place for Fenton and Nannetta as they sang their love duet. The illusion of being alongside the Thames was abetted by the subtle lighting of Traci Klainer Polimeni. We loved the scene of Falstaff and his page (Natan Mulady) swimming down the river and climbing out which was augmented later by the illusion of Fenton poling his way downstream.
Finally we were most impressed by the fine-tuned conducting of Maestro Willie Anthony Waters who pulled some fine playing from his pickup orchestra. There is one more performance on Sunday afternoon and one could do no better on a stuffy day in New York City than to drag one's fatigued body up to Hunter College and to fill your ears with Verdi's swan song and your heart with laughter. If we had one operatic wish (and we have not yet shared this with Ms. Arroyo) it would be to have her productions all year round. As it is, one must wait for the dog days of summer--but the experience is worth waiting for. You will see us tonight at Cosi fan Tutte which promises to be equally rewarding. Come and revel!
(c) meche kroop