Composer: Antonio Salieri
Conductor: Christopher Fecteau
Producer/Director: Louisa Proske
Falstaff: Gary Ramsey
Mrs. Ford: Marie Masters
Mrs. Slender: Heather Antonissen
Mr. Ford: Erik Bagger
Mr. Slender: Scott Lindroth
Bardolfo: Jonathan Dauermann
Betty: Joanie Brittingham
Just as the clock was fatefully ticking the last hours before a possible lockout at the Met, therefore jeopardizing the beginning of the New York opera season, I decided to take a well-deserved break during an extremely laborious weekend to go check out some other fish in the New York opera sea. And what better way to lift up my spirits than a dramma giocoso courtesy of... Antonio Salieri, of all composers, who back in his days successfully adapted Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor in Falstaff, ossia le tre burle, before almost a century later Giuseppe Verdi triumphantly followed suit, unceremoniously relegating the original effort to punishing and, as I was about to find out, unfair obscurity?
Fortunately for us, the small but feisty Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble somehow decided to give the opera its first New York stage performance in 16 years, putting a modern spin on it for the occasion, in the well-proportioned, if mercilessly freezing, black box of the East Thirteen Street Theatre. So I figured that after attending the pitch-perfect production of Verdi's Falstaff presented by the Met last year, it was high time to become acquainted with another take on every opera lover's favorite sleaze ball in a space that allows the audience to have a blissfully more close and personal experience of it.
Streamlining the original plot from The Merry Wives of Windsor and making ingenious use of late-18th-century classical music, Salieri created a sure-fire crowd-pleaser through a solid narrative structure, strong characters and attractive melodies. It may not be very deep and for sure lacks Mozart's divinely inspired genius (Since the comparison is bound to come up, let's get it out of the way now, shall we?), but then again, intellectual stimulation and ground-breaking experimentation was probably not the point anyway.
From the very first scene, baritone Gary Ramsey established himself as a Falstaff who may not have been the most physically imposing ever, despite a protruding pot belly, but who more than made up for it with a substantial dose of sleazy self-confidence and an electric blue suit that would have made any disco king proud. His singing was assured without being overbearing, and cleverly conveyed quite a bit of self-delusion.
Although Falstaff was the main character, the real star of the show turned out to be Marie Masters' Mrs. Ford, a petite but unstoppable fireball whose luxuriously rich, endless pliable soprano voice kept everyone enthralled. By turns charming and shrewd, she never missed a single beat and had her moment of glory when she appeared as a Snookie-like German au-pair, impeccably switching back and forth from Italian to German before masterfully wrapping Falstaff around her conniving little finger.
Her more than willing partner in mischief, Mrs. Slender, was mezzo-soprano Heather Antonissen, whose very special way of pruning made it clear that it was best not to upset her when she had her fearsome tool in hand. Her singing, on the other hand, was controlled and elegant.
If the ladies were unquestionably delightful, their husbands were just as well-defined in their own way. As the irrationally jealous Mr. Ford, tenor Erik Bagger, looking dapper in a business suit or shady in a gangster outfit, was the ultimate hapless victim of his own paranoia, but he did it with style physically and vocally.
Baritone Scott Lindroth was an endearingly nerdy Mr. Slender, who particularly distinguished himself during the aria in which he effortlessly switched from man to woman, displaying an impressive vocal range and a notable comic talent to boot.
As the hired help, bass Jonathan Dauermann was a denim-clad Bardolfo who looked like he had spent too many hours with rock bands, and soprano Joanie Brittingham winningly brought her colorful singing to the perky Betty.
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble may operate on a shoe-string budget, but it makes up for its lack of means with remarkable passion and creativity. Neither the sets nor the costumes were lavish, but everything on that stage efficiently served the dynamite performance. Louisa Proske's sharp and imaginative direction kept the thee-hour affair moving along briskly, and had it punctuated by numerous light touches, such Mr. Ford getting a bouquet of flowers from a stagehand on his way to go greet his wife. An adroit use of the lighting system nicely completed the well-conceived scenes.
The score was an appealing example of good old Viennese music with harpsichord and recitative introducing each scene, deft and fluid arrangements, high-flying arias and challenging vocal ensemble numbers. The small but accomplished orchestra did an excellent job at conveying the sophistication and playfulness of the opera under the baton of Christopher Fecteau, who tirelessly did double duty as conductor and keyboard player.
It was fun, it was fresh, it was everything an opera performance should be, and everybody left the theater with a smile and the feeling that no matter what is in store at the Met these days, there's plenty of irrepressible operatic talent to be discovered and nurtured beyond the Lincoln Center. And that is a good thing.