Company: Union Avenue Opera
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd., St. Louis
Dates: Aug. 5, 6
Tickets: $35 to $55; contact 314-361-2881 or unionavenueopera.org
Highlights: Union Avenue Opera returns Shakespeare’s convivial and conniving errant knight to its stage with a delightful production filled with Verdi’s exquisite music and good humor in this three-act opera based on the Bard’s comedy “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
Story: Sir John Falstaff, rotund of body and deceptive of heart, drinks heartily at the Garter Inn in the town of Windsor, England, until the bill arrives. Short of cash, he concocts a scheme to access the fortunes of two wealthy men by attempting to seduce their wives.
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He sends identical love letters to Mrs. Alice Ford and to Mrs. Meg Page. The two women quickly realize that the letters are the same, and plot sweet revenge against Falstaff. Meanwhile, the Fords’ daughter Nannetta is in love with the young Fenton, but her father has promised her in marriage to the wealthy but aged Dr. Caius.
The latter, who has been swindled by Falstaff, meets with Ford to exact justice from the duplicitous knight. Ford masquerades as Signor Fontana, a man who professes to love Alice but who asks Falstaff to seduce the woman first, and thus make a dalliance easier for him in the process.
Alice, Meg and Mistress Quickly move forward with their own plan to humiliate Falstaff, luring him to Alice’s room for a supposed rendezvous. Falstaff tells “Fontana” about the planned visit, which angers the jealous Ford. Falstaff, however, is thwarted in his attempt to seduce Alice when Ford’s men barge into the rendezvous room. Hiding in a laundry basket, Falstaff escapes the men – but only at the cost of being thrown into the River Thames with the laundry.
That evening, Falstaff is lured into the woods, as Mistress Quickly has told him that he can meet Alice there if he dresses like the legendary Herme the Hunter. Meanwhile, Ford and his men also dress in disguise as supernatural creatures to fool Falstaff. Ford further wants to have Nannetta married there to Caius, who also is in disguise.
However, Fenton enters the woods in disguise, too. Caius and Ford are duped by Falstaff’s servant, Bardolfo, and Ford inadvertently weds Caius to the disguised Bardolfo, as well as another pair who in reality are Nannetta and Fenton.
When all is revealed, Ford acknowledges the marriage of Nannetta and Fenton, and all revel in Falstaff’s comeuppance. The latter, seeing others duped as well, remarks that all the world is a joke, content with himself.
Other Info: UAO previously performed Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” in 2005 to wide acclaim. “Falstaff,” the composer’s final opera and only his second comedy, was first performed in 1893 at La Scala in Milan. It features music by Verdi and a libretto by Arrigo Boito, based on Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives” and scenes from both “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Henry IV, Part 2.”
Robert Mellon, who excelled in the title role in last year’s UAO production of “The Barber of Seville,” delivers an ingratiating performance, both vocally and acting, in the title role. His Falstaff is hearty in his pursuit of wine, women and song and precise in his comedy, especially in scenes where Falstaff receives his comeuppance.
Janara Kellerman is also a hoot as the mentally agile Mistress Quickly, whose name underscores her ability to put together elaborate schemes to bring down the pompous Falstaff a notch or two. All of the voices in this presentation are excellent, as exemplified by Karen Kanakis as the engaging Alice.
Melody Wilson makes fine use of her richly textured mezzo-soprano as the wily Meg, and Brooklyn Snow’s smooth soprano carries the day as the fair Nannetta, often joined in song with Jesse Darden’s clear tenor voice in the role of Fenton.
Comic support is abundant, with Anthony Heinemann as the stiff Caius, Mark Freiman as Falstaff’s bumbling associate Pistola, and Clark Sturdevant (Marc Schapman on opening night) as Falstaff’s other drinking pal, Bardolfo. Baritone Jacob Lassiter rounds out the wonderful cast as Alice’s jealous husband, Ford.
Stage director Jon Truett coaxes convincing performances from all his talented cast, both in their luxurious singing and in their fine comic turns. Conductor Stephen Hargreaves leads the UAO orchestra in a well-read and -performed interpretation of Verdi’s highly agreeable score, a treat for the audience’s ears.
Lex Van Blommenstein’s scenic design fills the stage with partitions suitable for background draping or well-appointed comic interludes, all complemented by Patrick Huber’s agreeable lighting design. Teresa Doggett’s costumes capture both early 15th-century English styles and the show’s consistently comic elements.
“Falstaff,” with its luscious melodies and abundant humor, suitably is sandwiched between the more serious themes in “Eugene Onegin” and “A Little Night Music,” the other shows in UAO’s 2022 season.