That endearing old rogue Falstaff blustered his way through opening night of the Santa Fe Opera’s season Friday. Led by a baritone who seemed born for the part (that is, if anyone could be born Falstaff), the cast gave a lively and witty performance of Verdi’s final opera.
The star of the show was decisively French baritone Laurent Naouri, who will be singing Falstaff through July 11; afterward Anthony Michaels-Moore will take the part. Through costuming, makeup and acting wizardry, Naouri was transformed into the fat, balding, dissolute old knight (I’ve been told that this is far from the real Naouri. If you met him on the street afterward, you wouldn’t recognize him). Naouri has a virile and polished baritone voice and works well in the ensemble cast. Outrageously vain and supremely self-confident despite his setbacks, he stays a winner (of sorts) to the end.
With the exception of the Fenton of Norman Reinhardt, who was vocally a little below the level of the rest (though he was believable enough as a handsome young lover), this was a top-notch cast who sang well and worked beautifully as a collaborative ensemble.
I was especially taken with the Mistress Quickly of Nancy Maultsby, the Alice Ford of Claire Rutter and the Nannetta of Laura Giordano, but the rest of the cast were a group of pros, both vocally and theatrically. They included Kelly O’Connor (Meg Page), Franco Pomponi (Ford), Keith Jameson (Bardolph), Wilbur Pauley (Pistol) and Corey Bix (Dr. Caius).
The cast members could not have interacted as effectively as they did without the fine direction of Kevin Newbury.
The sets by Allen Moyer, the costumes of Clare Mitchell and the lighting of Duane Schuler were also a plus. The opera opens with a small, makeshift red curtain shielding the quarters of Falstaff. This suggests a play within a play, though the idea is not carried forward. Falstaff’s room is a ramshackle mess, contrasting sharply with the elegant house of the Fords. A huge, spooky dead tree is the focal point of the final act. A clever element is the Elizabethan street scene formed by a row of miniature houses across the top of the set in all acts. There is even an Elizabethan birdhouse in a garden.
The orchestra under Paolo Arrivabeni’s direction gave a superb performance. There was one negative, or series of negatives: Ensemble numbers drifted out of sync on several occasions.
The performance was clearly a hit with the audience. There was frequent laughter and heavy applause at the end. The laughter was one more bit of evidence, if any were needed, that projecting translations immensely enhances the enjoyment of opera. In the old days, the audience would have sat deadpan through the evening. Santa Fe’s projection system, like the Metropolitan Opera’s, is close to ideal: Each person sees the text on the back of the seat in front, and can turn the projection on or off at will.
The remainder of Santa Fe’s season includes The Marriage of Figaro, Billy Budd, Radamisto by Handel, and Adriana Mater by Kaija Saariaho. Performances continue through Aug. 23.