Catherine Reese Newton attended the University of Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble performance of Verdi's "Falstaff" on Friday. Here is her report.
The University of Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble keeps growing stronger. As a student company, Lyric Opera Ensemble has had the freedom to produce some commercially risky operas, such as Mark Adamo's "Little Women" and Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites," ahead of the state's professional companies. The current production of Verdi's "Falstaff" represents another kind of risk-taking -- it's one of the most artistically ambitious ventures the company has undertaken, and it's also one of the most successful. Watching Friday's performance, it was easy to forget that this is a student production.
Baritone Steven Condy, a seasoned professional who sang the role of Falstaff for Utah Opera two years ago, anchors the Lyric Opera Ensemble production. Condy is a first-rate Falstaff. Not only is his singing top-notch, he also is a gifted actor who finds comic gold in even the smallest gestures and facial expressions.
Producer Robert Breault has assembled two student casts around Condy. Friday's cast occasionally got overpowered by the Utah Philharmonia's exuberant performance of Verdi's magnificent score, but vocal technique and dramatic presentation were always secure. Standouts included Olivia Maughan, who delivered a fearless, good-humored Alice Ford, and Daniel Tuutau, who revealed just the right touch of vulnerability as Alice's headstrong husband.
Erin McOmber and Demaree Brown contributed strong singing and good comic timing as the other merry wives of Windsor, Meg Page and Dame Quickly. Luke Bahr and Merrill Flint were well-cast as Falstaff's sidekicks, Bardolfo and Pistola; Geoffrey Friedley made the most of his time as the often-frustrated Dr. Caius. Andrew Maughan and Amber Stachitus sang beautifully as the young couple, Fenton and Nannetta.
"Falstaff" is Verdi's last opera, and its score is brainier than many of his earlier crowd-pleasers. There are few, if any, applause breaks -- a quirk that may have thrown Friday's crowd a little off-balance at first. But soon the audience appeared to realize that applauding after one of the opera's brief arias usually means missing some of the delicious details in the score. The Utah Philharmonia seemed to relish those details in its richly realized performance, under the expert direction of Robert Baldwin.
Michael Scarola, a New York-based stage director, continues his collaboration with Lyric Opera Ensemble. His direction highlights the humanity as well as the comedy in Arrigo Boito's Shakespeare-based libretto; he also adds a couple of fun and surprising twists.
Further enhancing this production's professionalism are contributions from current and former Utah Opera staff, including an attractive, streamlined set designed by Jared Porter, costumes by Susan Memmott Allred, props by Kelly Nickle and Elaine Latimer, and wigs and makeup by Yancey J. Quick. (Falstaff's wigs almost deserve their own credit.)
The Supertitles (an English translation of the Italian text, projected on a small screen above the stage) also deserve special mention. In addition to their usual function, the titles show up during the Act 2 scene break to offer a helpful explanation of the symbolic use of horns in this opera. It's such a great idea, one wonders why it isn't used routinely.
You can hear Condy with a different cast tonight (Saturday, April 20) at 7:30 in Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City. Tickets are $20; $10 for students; and free for University of Utah students and children under 18.