Indianapolis Opera

Clowes Memorial Hall

May 4 and 6

While we may have missed Indianapolis Opera veteran Timothy Noble’s Sir John Falstaff at last Friday’s IO production of Verdi’s Falstaff, Steven Condy stepped into the title role and delivered a near knockout performance of Shakespeare’s fat funny-man, the story adapted mostly from his Merry Wives of Windsor. Because of a recent heart problem, Noble had to excuse himself from Friday’s production, Falstaff’s role being physically as well as vocally demanding. (Noble did sing the role on Sunday afternoon.) As IO’s final operatic venture of the season, Falstaff presents an extreme challenge to the local company, one it met with mixed results. The reasons have mostly to do with this great opera’s genesis and structure.

Completed in 1893 — in collaboration with 80-year-old Verdi’s young poet, librettist and himself an opera composer Arrigo Boito — Falstaff represents Verdi’s culmination of 50 years of opera writing and was only the second comedy he had produced. This also was Verdi’s third operatic setting of Shakespeare, preceded six years earlier by Otello — his first collaboration with Boito. Then there was Macbeth of 1848, far inferior to the later two. Throughout his long career, Giuseppe Verdi had gradually evolved from a master tunesmith to a music dramatist of the first rank.

After the inspirational white heat he and Boito had poured into the tragic Otello, the pair did an about face in infusing extraordinary craft into the comic Falstaff. Singers and instrumentalists continuously interweave; ideas and melodic constructs fly past each other, melding like quicksilver. The rapid pace continues almost unabated throughout the three acts, each with two scenes. With Falstaff, Verdi surpassed the overly polemicized musico-dramatic goals of his German counterpart Richard Wagner without making a big deal of it.

Thus the technical demands placed upon all the principals — Condy as that portly rascal Sir John; his minions Bardolfo and Pistola, sung by Joseph Gaines and Jason Plourde; the “merry wives”: Jane Dutton singing Meg Page, Amy Johnson singing Alice Ford and Emily Golden as Dame Quickly; young lovers Tina Beverly as Nannetta and Brad Diamond as Fenton; and Thomas Potter as Master Ford (or simply Ford) — were challenging in the extreme.

And, as alluded above, Condy surmounted his difficulties the best, his vocal equipment maintaining much elegant beauty and control throughout his continuous challenges, nicely defined by his aria on “honor” at the end of Act 1’s first scene. As Ford, Potter’s baritone voice was deeper and better projecting but less controlled. It was best defined by his famous monologue on women, jealousy and treachery at the end of Act 2’s first scene, producing the only intra-act applause.

While the merry wives and Nannetta managed the vocal repartee well enough by themselves, their singing as a quartet — with various instruments tagging along right in step — proved to be problematic in subsuming talking cadences within carrying and harmonizing tunes. These issues were compounded by much stage action. In fairness, their results are undoubtedly typical of regional productions of this opera, compelling in so many ways that it needs to be given regardless.

IO artistic director and conductor James Caraher did a yeoman’s job taking the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra through this mercurially taxing score, holding his players together as well as possible and sharing with us the “youthful” miracle of an 80-year-old’s orchestration. Set designer Timothy Jozwick set us up well, both inside and outside Windsor’s famed Garter Inn, in Ford’s house and in the moonlit Windsor Forest for the final scene.

As for the plot, I’d suggest a Google search.