Cher Public

Great shakes

The little opera companies of New York are like chanterelles: Some years they sprout everywhere and you can savor the scent in the woodsy air; other seasons they’re hard to find and unsatisfying when you stumble on a patch. New York’s got lots of untapped vocal talent but you never know which companies will have their ears screwed on straight.  

I didn’t expect too much when Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble announced performances of Verdi’s Macbeth and Salieri’s Falstaff in their “A Summer of Shakespeare” 2014 season, especially with Macbeth, a tough piece to get right for the mightiest of companies. To my surprise, the Macbeth on Wednesday night was a pleasure, with a well-rehearsed orchestra and strong young voices. On Thursday, the Salieri work, which was new to me, boasted an adorable prima donna, a witty staging and the same able orchestra as Macbeth.

Dell’Arte gives Macbeth at the East Thirteenth Street Theatre (near Third Avenue), in a sizable square black brick room (no orchestra pit), the staging basic, the nineteen musicians in two clumps against different walls. The music-makers nonetheless achieve most of Verdi’s delicate instrumental colors. Let’s attribute their occasional mis-cues to the difficulty the wind and brass sections had seeing their able maestro, Christopher Fecteau, through a passel of swift-moving singers. (There were no mis-cues in Falstaff, where sight lines were not a problem.)

The company hasn’t a sizable chorus, but Dell’Arte found creative solutions to the difficulty. The Three Witches, composed for women’s choruses and usually sung in an arch and eldritch screech, are here performed by Monica Niemi, Elizabeth Bouk and Jackie Hayes, who sing full-throatedly, as one rarely hears the music, and seem to enjoy scampering, babbling and conjuring. The chorus of refugees that opens Act IV was simply omitted. The troop carrying Birnam Wood was guerilla-sized, but Macbeth’s own troops mime surrender and a quick change of sides.

A great deal of the fun of small companies is being in a small venue near great big voices. On Wednesday, the sheer size of the sound of the Lady in Waiting and the Doctor was enough (you’d have thought) to wake their sleepwalking Queen. Hans Tashjian sang Banquo with a good line and easy low notes that filled the room. Caleb Stokes, the Macduff, was loud when appalled to discover Duncan’s murdered corpse, but he sang “Ah, la paterna mano” at a lower volume, with his eyes down and his chin sunk into his chest, as if to demonstrate that this was a soliloquy and not just a Verdi crowd-pleaser. Marques Hollie made an adroit and regal Malcolm.

Macbeth was sung by Jason Plourde, a baritone with a dry, not very sensuous sound applied, however, with dramatic force and insight to suggest the thane’s doubts about his frustrated ambition and nervous tension after attaining the crown.

Mary Ann Stewart, a handsome woman and a committed actress, sang his Lady. Stewart’s voice is sizable and, in its lower ranges, attractive. In, roughly, the upper half of its compass, though, notes become squally and hollow, often straying from pitch, and she found the coloratura as awkward as do most Lady M’s. (Better than Guleghina, though.) She has presence and poise, and she warmed up with “Le luce langue,” but the Sleepwalking Scene, though the latter did not seem especially somnolent. Indeed, she and the Witches and everyone else seemed unaware that this show is a spook fest and ought to suggest something creepy and uncanny—there was no ooga-booga to this Macbeth, and the opera calls for it. Stewart is an interesting singer of a role that almost demands snarling, but I wouldn’t care to hear her sing the gentler, more lyric Verdi heroines.

Nina Bova is credited with costume design, and I enjoyed Lady M’s necklaces, becoming ever gaudier, act by act, until she appeared unbejeweled in her nightdress, but draping what looked like plaid dishcloths across a shoulder of each of the Scottish nobles cannot be judged a success. Fight choreographer David Laws has worked with Director Myra Cordell to solve the often embarrassing sequence of invasion and conquest. I also liked having the murdered Banquo simply lie on the floor while the banquet swirls over and beside him until it’s time to jump up to scare the bejesus out of his old friend the king.

Macbeth will be repeated on Friday with an alternate cast and on Sunday with this one.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare’s least Shakespearean plays. There is hardly a memorable line or poetic figure from start to finish, but the plot, the attempted simultaneous seduction of two wives and their punishment of the seducer, was theatrical gold. It has been set to music half a dozen times, and some of those works (certainly Nicolai’s and Verdi’s if not Vaughn Williams’s) have the musical wit and magic that the play lacks.

Antonio Salieri’s Falstaff of 1799 is graceful, swift-moving and tuneful. His fat knight is as preposterous as anyone’s but a little rougher around the edges. The tiresome junior love story has been omitted and Nicolai gave the Wives and the fairies more personality, but Falstaff’s egotism and the wives’ sparkle is as sharp here as in any version.

Louisa Proske is the stage director of Dell’Arte’s Falstaff, Nina Bova, again, the costumer. They have set the play in some suburbia of our childhoods, late seventies or eighties (Jere Hall on the cover of a prop Cosmopolitan), with all the most colorful bêtises of that fashion era, the fluffy party dresses in loud pastels, the sweaters tied over the neck, the colorful cummerbunds and socks, and someone has worked, maybe too hard, on an Americanization of the subtitles. “I’m a hard-rocker, a stud!” cries Falstaff, per the titles, when he is actually singing, “Son un Cesare, un Achille” in the libretto. An early high point was the performance of the L.A. Hustle by the cast (with highly sexualized moves from Sir John) to the sound of a lively minuet. (The choreographer is Sam Pinkelton.)

The cast on Thursday featured a properly bombastic Falstaff in David Morrow, though his basso buffo lacked the rotundity of his prop belly and turned a bit sour from time to time—but Falstaff has few lyrical moments, and Morrow’s comedy was always blithe. The stars, in fact, were the Merry Wives: Marie Masters as Mrs. Ford and Heather Antonissen as Mrs. Slender, mercifully well-named, a charming singer and actress. Masters, short and plump, with an agile, delicious soprano, was the star of the show, every gesture, every expression, every phrase part of her hilarious characterization as put-upon wife, mischievous conspirator, feigning lover and (disguised) sexy German au pair. (Salieri’s Vienna audience must have loved the “love” scene auf Deutsch.) While her high notes were fearless and beautiful, Masters’ lower voice was irresistible and sexy, and the transition from one range to another seamless and smooth. A first-rate singer and comedienne, she would be adorable in any Rossini, Mozart or Donizetti comedy, and her diction, in both Italian and German, is impeccable.

Scott Lindroth, an able baritone and a fine actor, sang Mr. Slender. Erik Bagger sang Ford, aka Mr. Brook, the tenor, to whom Salieri gave two arias. The luck of Dell’Arte’s casting couldn’t last all night, and Bagger was the breakdown. In him good technique and decent pitch did not make up for a thin, unpleasant instrument and several moments to make one wince. What this opera is like with a real tenor in it one can only imagine. Perhaps the alternate cast, who will sing its final performance on Saturday night, will give one an idea.

  • Will

    Merry Wives has become opera a few more than a half dozen times. Here’s what I researched for a talk omn turning Shakespeare into opera last spring:
    * = has been recorded

    Adolphe-Charles Adam – Falstaff 1856
    *Michael Balfe – Falstaff 1835
    Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf – The Merry Wives of Windsor 1796
    Edward Horn – Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor 1823
    *Otto Nicolai – Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor 1849
    Louis-Auguste Papavoine – Le Vieux Coquet ou Les deux amis 1761
    Peter Ritter — Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor 1794
    *Antonio Salieri – Falstaff 1799
    *Ralph Vaughan Williams – Sir John in Love 1929
    *Giuseppe Verdi – Falstaff (with passages from Henry IV) 1893

    • Sempre liberal

      Will, thank you for sharing this. If you ever record that talk on turning Shakespeare into opera, please share it with us.

  • parpignol

    second cast of Falstaff was also excellent; and what a beautiful opera! I had no idea. . .

    • la vociaccia

      I saw the second cast on the 19th. The three leading ladies -- Mrs Ford, Mrs Slender, and Betty, were fantastic, really lovely singing and acting.

      I wasn’t as wild about the men, but as you said it was a beautiful opera and I felt fortunate to hear it

      • parpignol

        I was there on the 23rd; the wives were terrific: Jennifer Townshend, Kristin Gornstein; Falstaff, Gary Ramsey, was a funny comedian with a serviceable voice and poor Italian diction, which was a pity since the libretto is composed to come across quite clearly; the tenor Victor Khodadad started off shaky but got better and had some fine moments; Bardolfo, Andrew Hiers, was excellent, conjuring the spirit of Leporello--

        • la vociaccia

          In the performance I saw, the tenor appeared to be struggling quite a bit; in his gorgeous Act 1 aria there were a couple scary moments where he and the clarinetist both got lost during the cadenza. I share Yohalem’s curiosity about what all that music would sound like when sung by a decent tenor. The aria in question was certainly delightful and had a few shades of Mozart’s Tito. Andrew Hiers had far and away the best voice of all the men, but his acting was a bit over the top for my taste.

          But the ladies were a pleasure

  • Will

    I got to design the Salieri Falstaff in Boston back in 1974. The company was pretty certain it was the U.S. staged premiere. It proved to be a most attractive piece that the audience liked very much.