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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Opera Review: Not the Jack You Know

Dell'Arte Opera presents Antonio Salieri.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Windsor Forest in a wrestling singlet: Gary Ramsey (center) stars in Falstaff.
Photo by Brian Long © 2014 Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble.
Thanks to the 1984 Academy Award-winning film Amadeus, the composer Antonio Salieri is, to most people "the guy who killed Mozart."  Last week, the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, currently in the middle of a festival celebrating operatic adaptations of the work of Shakespeare, chose to mount Salieri's 1799 opera Falstaff, ossia il tre Burle ("The Three Jokes"), providing some much needed healing for this unjustly ignored composer, whose forty operas lie mostly in the locked desk drawers of history.

Opening night on Thursday, Aug. 14 marked the first staged performance of the Salieri Falstaff in New York in 16 years, and the first one put on by a Manhattan-based opera company. What stood revealed were the quality of Salieri's musical abilities and a very funny take on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. True, Salieri's librettist (one Carlo Prospero Defranchesci) rewrites the play, renames the characters and focuses squarely on three physical humiliations suffered by the corpulent cavalier in his efforts to woo two rich and bored housewives. It is a bubbling, energetic comedy with memorable melodies and considerable vocal challenges for the young cast.

This production by Louisa Proske brought the humor of the show out despite a miniscule budget. The Spartan approach and rumbustious comedy plays very well in the East 13th Street theater, an old-school "black box." A new LED-based lighting system (installed for the festival and designed by Scott Schneider.  This show is part of a three-opera festival, alternating in the space this week with Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen (an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, already playing to good notices) and Verdi's Macbeth which opens tomorrow night.

In this decidedly American update, the merry wives (Marie Masters as Mrs. Ford, Heather Antonissen as Mrs. Slender) were decked out as suburban New York housewives with a taste for gaudy jewelry and fashions suitable to a run of VH1 Classic's We Are the 80s. The nouveau riche costuming was aided by Ms. Antonissen's slight resemblence to comidienne Fran Drescher, although her mezzo-soprano was far more pleasing in tone.

The vocal star of the night was Ms. Masters, whose barn-burning performance as Alice Ford made the show fly. Whether wrapping her husband around her little finger or ushering Falstaff down the primrose path to soakings, beatings and burnings (all these things happen to our hero, Defranchesci was a bit of a sadist!) this was a magnetic performance, delivered with a full, rich soprano that blasted its way high above the stave. She was at her best in the scene where Alice impersonates a German lady's-maid and sings a number im Deutsch, a reminder of the tastes of Salieri's Viennese audience.

Baritone Gary Ramsey, who stepped into the title role after singer David Morrow fell ill. Decked out in a ruffled tux in a particularly noxious shade of blue, Mr. Ramsey played the paunchy knight as suffering a permanent case of arrested development. With a pleasing, light baritone and quick comic timing he managed to turn Falstaff from heel to hero in certain scenes, making his humiliation all the funnier. With his awkward limbs, cannonball paunch and preference for wrestling singlets he was a marvelous and hideous Falstaff, a self-inflated stag in pursuit of the wives' purses.

Tenor Erik Bagger took the key role of Ford, whose jealousy of Falstaff makes him a second victim of the wives' pranks. This is a pleasing tenore di grazia with the capacity to play a perfect straight man. Baritone Scott Lindroth, whose light voice moved pleasingly over the stripped-down orchestration (the ensemble, arranged and conducted by music director Christopher Fecteau featured two violins, one viola, one cello, one bass, plus winds and brass). Gangly bass Jonathan Dauermann was an unconventional Bardolfo, decked out in a denim suit and wig that made him look like a lost and confused roadie for Guns N' Roses. Finally, Betty Joan Brittingham shone in the soubrette part of Betty, the lady's-maid.

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