I’ve always been ambivalent towards opera. On one hand, I love the voices-those powerful theater-filling instruments that make one ashamed to even try singing in the shower. Their power and majesty are thrilling, inspiring, and humbling—all at the same time.
On the other hand, they tell stories-with characters, and with dialogue. That dialogue–and the accompanying events–often do not achieve the same level of awe-inspiring performance as the singing. A singer might swell his voice to reach the stars–while asking for a sandwich.
I thought of this recently as I sat in San Jose’s beautiful California Theater and watched the opening night performance of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff. Readers who know Shakespeare at all, know Falstaff as an overweight, loud-mouthed drunkard in Henry IV, a would-be seducer of women, and a bad influence on young Prince Hal, trying to keep him drinking and partying until Hal rises above, rejecting Falstaff to become the heroic Henry V.
The prince does not appear in Verdi’s version—which is based more on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor— but Falstaff is there, with all of his bad habits intact—as befitting a comedy. He drinks, he brags, he welshes on his bar tab, he plots to seduce women, he berates his workers, but most of all—as played by Scott Bearden—he sings, with a thundering, powerful voice, the equal of anyone else on stage. Would that his comedic acting equaled his voice.
The true comediennes in this performance were the ladies. More capable of injecting feeling into their wonderful voices, and supporting it with animated faces, Jennifer Forni as Alice Ford, Lisa Chavez as Meg Page, and Nicole Birkland as Dame Quickly establish immediately that Falstaff is no match for them. Their indignation at Falstaff’s plan to seduce them, their glee as they plot their revenge, and their total joy as the revenge comes to pass, are all portrayed with liveliness of voice and face and gesture that keeps the audience in rapt attention. Of course their words and actions do not measure up to their awe-inspiring voices—but that’s opera.
The symbiotic relationship between voice and action and meaning, however, does shine through with the young lovers in the play. Nannetta Ford, played by Cecilia Violetta Lopez, and Fenton, played by James Callon, have the passionate language of romance to match their euphoric, elegant voices, and the results are amazing. Love sizzles in the beauty of their singing, the animation of their faces. And in Ms. Lopez’s larger role, as the Fairy Witch who dominates the final torture of Falstaff, she is the epitome of lively charm.
All in all, attending opening night of Falstaff at the San Jose Opera was a wonderful experience. Tuxedos and elegant gowns everywhere, a glamorous 1927 old-style theater—glittering from a recent 80 million dollar restoration, and a cast with voices magnificent made for an unforgettable evening.
Bruce Roberts is a writer and retired junior high teacher from Hayward, California. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org