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As I mentioned in my post on Mefistofele, the San Francisco Opera is honoring the Verdi bicentennial throughout the 2013-2014 season, notably with productions of Falstaff and La traviata as well as special performances of his Messa da Requiem. This production of Falstaff, which La Maratonista and I saw last Wednesday, was originally produced for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Falstaff at Herne's Oak in Windsor Forest. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Falstaff at Herne’s Oak in Windsor Forest. Photo by Cory Weaver.

By accident or design, for most of the year I’ve been going into these performances cold, and Falstaff was no exception. All I really knew was that it was supposed to be one of Verdi’s masterpieces (it’s actually his final opera) and that it had been well reviewed. I did bump into John Marcher on my way in, who kindly advised me to worry less about following the Italian and concentrate on the music.

That turned out to be great advice because there was so much going on musically that it was hard to keep up. I really regretted not having more of a Verdi context, but that can’t be helped at this point. Furthermore, it’s really better to focus more on the music than the plot, because the plot is completely ludicrous and overly complicated. Falstaff is supposed to be the bad guy I guess, but the wives and husbands plotting against him seem rather like mean girls and boys from the local high school. I assume that’s Shakespeare’s fault and not Boito’s, but I’ve read very few of Shakespeare’s comedies and don’t know the story of The Merry Wives of Windsor at all.

All in all, there was a lot going on and I was a bit overwhelmed. There were many musical elements I quite enjoyed, such as the “Bocca baciata” line repeated by the two young lovers and the sequence of chords as Falstaff counts down to midnight, but I guess I expected to be blown away and I wasn’t. While some of that may be the lack of musical context, I actually think a big part of the problem was the story; I just couldn’t get into it, despite the humor. I wouldn’t recommend it as your first Verdi, or even your third.

That’s not to say this wasn’t a great production of Falstaff; I really can’t say. Certainly Bryn Terfel, as the star of the show, didn’t disappoint—he was a joy to behold and sang beautifully. He didn’t just play Falstaff, he was Falstaff.

Bryn Terfel as Falstaff. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Bryn Terfel as Falstaff. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Besides Terfel, the cast featured some of my favorites from past seasons, including Ainhoa Arteta as Alice Ford, who I adored as Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac, and Heidi Stober, who, as Atalanta in Serse, was a runner-up for my 2011 Figaro for outstanding female performance. Francesco Demuro, last seen as Ferrando in Così fan tutte, had a wonderful tone to his voice, although it perhaps wasn’t as strong as it could be. Finally, I didn’t love Meredith Arwady’s part (Dame Quickly) but I would be interested in seeing her again as she certainly had fun with it and is a strong singer.

Heidi Stober, Ainhoa Arteta, Renee Rapier, and Meredith Arwady plot against Falstaff. Photo by D. Ross Cameron of the Bay Area News Group.

Heidi Stober, Ainhoa Arteta, Renee Rapier, and Meredith Arwady plot against Falstaff. Photo by D. Ross Cameron of the Bay Area News Group.

A few production notes:

I liked the set, but having seen this opera on the heels of Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), the effect of having Falstaff rise out of the bowels of the stage was odd to say the least.

I appreciated only having one intermission and the very briefest of pauses between scenes.

The moon and oak backdrop for the final act was gorgeous, but I would have liked to see more woods along the sides of the stage. And Falstaff definitely shouldn’t have come out of the ground in the middle of the forest. It’s like they were so enamored of that hole in the floor they needed to use it every act.

The staging of the final act was a bit of a mess. It was supremely hard to follow.

It was absolutely glorious to have the curtain go up at 7:30 versus 8:00 and be heading home before 11:00. I wish the San Francisco Opera would have more 7:30 pm curtain times. Pretty please.