Opera fans attended Saturday's opening-night performance of the Washington National Opera's "Falstaff" at the Kennedy Center Opera House with great expectations. Boasting a great cast and a nifty stage concept, the production had a great deal going for it. But, alas, the evening was a bit of a letdown.
Giuseppe Verdi's last opera, first performed when he was 80 years old, "Falstaff" is the composer's rowdy hat tip to the Bard. Its delightful libretto was engineered by Verdi's best librettist, Arrigo Boito who blended material from the "Henry IV" plays and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" to create a farcical Elizabethan romp in song.
Stage director Christian Rath envisioned this production as two plays within a play, vaguely like "The Taming of the Shrew" via Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate."
He envisions the characters as contemporary actors who gradually don Elizabethan clothing backstage while period sets drop gradually into place. We are to imagine we're witnessing two versions of the action — one through the eyes of Falstaff and the other as imagined by the Merry Wives who are on to the old lecher's amorous intentions from the outset.
All this should have worked tolerably well. But aside from British baritone Alan Opie, who sings the title role, and a cadre of cross-dressing male ballerinas in the finale, this production frequently limped when it should have crackled with laughter.
Mr. Opie, a veteran Falstaff, gets Sir John's character just right. Still a goofball, but beginning to realize he may be his own worst enemy, his Falstaff leavens the silliness with a touch of melancholy. But he gets the last laugh in the end.
Loaded with comic gravitas, Mr. Opie's expressive vocal range is outstanding, his diction superb. But the rest of the cast seemed afraid to loosen up and play their characters off his fabulous Falstaff.
Don't get me wrong. The singing itself was almost uniformly good — at least when the WNO orchestra, under the baton of Sebastian Lang-Lessing, wasn't drowning his singers out, particularly in Act I.
Nonetheless, Alice Ford (soprano Tamara Wilson) and Mistress Quickly (mezzo Nancy Maultsby) were delightful. Young lovers Nannetta (JiYoung Lee) and Fenton (Yingxi Zhang) were charming. And baritone Timothy Mix (Ford) displayed immense vocal talent in his small but important role.
But in the end, the over-the-top slapstick so necessary to this opera's success came alive only furtively until in the grand finale where everything finally clicked.
Today's best opera productions combine fabulous singing with convincing characterizations, even in comedy. Perhaps this cast will get more comfortable with their fictional skins as the run of "Falstaff" continues. The talent is certainly there, but opening night, at least, still had the feel of a dress rehearsal.
WHAT: Washington National Opera production of Verdi's "Falstaff" at the Kennedy Center Opera House
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday and Oct. 17; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21, 25 and 30, and 2 p.m. Oct. 25
TICKETS: $45 to $195; 202/295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS