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Kirov’s ‘Falstaff’ vision an unsightly mess

The Kirov Opera's "Falstaff," enduring a blessedly short run at the Kennedy Center Opera House, is both baroque in its extravagance and banal in its execution.

Based primarily on "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Giuseppe Verdi's final opera is at once a rich summation of his brilliant career and a broadly comic homage to England's greatest playwright, William Shakespeare, who also had inspired two of the composer's greatest tragic operas, "Macbeth" and "Otello." The Kirov's current production dispenses with this heritage by transforming "Falstaff" into an arrogant spectacle of directorial vanity.

The apparent vision of director Kirill Serebrennikov, set designer Nikolai Simonov and costume designer Olga Reznichenko (who collaborated with Mr. Serebrennikov) was to "update" Verdi's "Falstaff" into a crude, socialist satire on American brutality and materialism.

In the opera as originally conceived, its characters eventually collaborate to make a fool out of the portly Sir John Falstaff, who has convinced himself that he can seduce pretty much every suburban housewife in Windsor. In the current iteration, Sir John serves as master of the revels for a capitalistic carnival of mindless consumerism. Yawn.

The cheap ugliness of the Kirov's sets and costumes probably was intended to symbolize the cheap ugliness of American culture while saving a lot of rubles. The production vaguely invokes Atomic Age America in the 1950s and 1960s, with riffs thrown in from other decades fore and aft. The men affect tuxes or profile as mods and rockers, while the ladies can't decide whether they're elegant flappers or miniskirted Haight-Ashbury refugees.

The Kirov builds visual clutter by tossing in random images of faux-Americana, losing dramatic focus with each successive misbegotten joke or visual symbol. Incongruity, intentional or unintentional, abounds. Stagehands outfitted with portly all-American bellies and foam Popeye elbows scurry about mindlessly. Attired in a robe and immersed in bubble bath early in Act II, Falstaff emerges from the tub bone dry. Old Ford, the presumed capitalist whose wife, Alice, is Falstaff's chief prey, bursts into the ladies' dressing room accompanied by a phalanx of Mafiosi cruising in, what else, a vintage black Ford. Get it?

The only truly imaginative bit occurs early in Act III. Falstaff, emerging from his dunking in the river, stumbles into a drive-in movie theater inhabited by what look like cheap '50s Fiats. Meanwhile, the creepy finale of Todd Browning's 1932 horror classic, "Freaks," runs silently on the big screen, a fine precursor to the fake demons who soon will torment Sir John.

This accretion of kitsch, however, proves a huge distraction from what the audience has paid to see -- a cherished comic opera highlighted by great singing and lighthearted buffo humor. What they get instead is a directorial ego trip that favors sight gags and smug in-jokes.

Musically, the Kirov Orchestra, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, routinely overwhelmed the hapless vocalists, who often seemed demoralized during Wednesday evening's lunacy. Only stalwart baritone Vassily Gerello (Ford) seemed eager to make the evening respectable, although tenor Andrei Ilyushnikov (Fenton) lent a hand with his elegant Act III aria.

Yet all attempts to salvage this evening ultimately failed, crashing upon the indifferent shoal of baritone Edem Umerov's flaccid Falstaff. Listless, apparently bored and insufficiently horizontally challenged, Mr. Umerov relentlessly communicated all the comic enthusiasm of a slug.

But look on the bright side. Perhaps this was his sly commentary on this turkey of a production.

0 stars

WHAT: The Kirov Opera's production of Verdi's "Falstaff"

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Tonight at 7:30

TICKETS: $45 to $195

INFORMATION: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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