Review of Falstaff at Union Avenue Opera

    Falstaff is the last opera Verdi completed and one of his greatest achievements. Union Avenue Opera has brought the sparkling comedy to life in a thoroughly delightful production.

    Arrigo Boito’s libretto is based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor along with snippets about Sir John Falstaff from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. Boito simplified the plot and made it arguably more theatrically effective than the original.

    Sir John Falstaff is short of money at the start of the opera and tries to refill his purse by romancing Alice Ford and Meg Page, the wives of two wealthy men. His scheme quickly goes off the rails when Alice and Meg discover he has sent them identical letters. They hatch a counterplot to give Falstaff his comeuppance with the aid of their friend, Mistress Quickly, and Alice’s daughter, Nannetta. Alice’s husband, Ford, has decided that Nannetta will marry Dr. Caius, even though she is in love with a young man named Fenton

    Ford learns about Falstaff’s plans from the knight’s dismissed followers, Bardolfo and Pistola. Ford comes up with a scheme of his own. Disguising himself as Mr. Brook, Ford visits Falstaff to trick the knight and test Alice’s fidelity.

    In style, Falstaff is reminiscent of Wagner’s music dramas, which have a continuous flow of action and music rather than the big arias and ensembles of Verdi’s earlier works. At Union Avenue, conductor Stephen Hargreaves and stage director Jon Truitt are in lockstep in their traditional staging. The excellent playing of the orchestra and singing and acting of the cast all work together to achieve the opera’s potential.

    Physical comedy is as important as singing in Robert Mellon’s splendid portrayal of Falstaff. Jacob Lassetter scores a great success in highlighting both the amusing and the alarming elements of Ford’s jealousy. The women are charming comic conspirators as played by Karen Kanakis as Alice, Melody Wilson as Meg, and Janara Kellerman as Mistress Quickly.

    The young couple warms hearts and ravishes ears in the performances by Brooklyn Snow as Nannetta and Jesse Darden as Fenton. Anthony Heinemann’s Dr. Caius, Marc Schapman’s Bardolfo, and Mark Freiman’s Pistola provide admirable comic support.

    Lex Van Blommenstein’s scenic design makes clever use of painted hanging fabric, especially in representing the great oak tree in the final scene. Teresa Doggett’s wonderful costumes are just the thing for a production in Shakespeare’s time. Patrick Huber’s lighting is always attuned to the setting and the time of day.

    The final performances of Falstaff begin at 8 p.m. on August 5 and 6 at Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union Boulevard. All visitors to Union Avenue Opera must wear a mask while in the building.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Dan Donovan

    Falstaff (Robert Mellon) woos a reluctant Alice Ford (Karen Kanakis) in Verdi’s Falstaff at Union Avenue Opera.