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A gala season opener

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
10/03/2014 -  & October 9, 12, 14, 25, 29, November 1, 2014
Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff
Gerald Finley (Falstaff), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Mistress Quickly), Lyne Fortin (Alice Ford), Lauren Segal (Meg Page), Simone Osborne (Nannetta), Russell Braun (Ford), Frédéric Antoun (Fenton), Michael Colvin (Dr. Caius), Colin Ainsworth (Bardolfo), Robert Gleadow (Pistola)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (chorus master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus (conductor)
Robert Carsen (director, lighting designer), Paul Steinberg (set designer), Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costume designer),
Peter van Praet (lighting designer)

M.-N. Lemieux, L. Fortin, L. Segal, S. Osborne (© Michael Cooper)

Robert Carsen’s well-travelled production of Falstaff has finally arrived at the COC, one of the five commissioning companies, the others being Milan’s La Scala (where it originated in 2013 as part of the Verdi bicentennial observations), Amsterdam, Covent Garden, and the Met. One result of this is that the production has been seen in local movie theatres earlier this year. Apparently the jury is still out as to whether the HD transmissions help or harm local box offices.

One definition of “Falstaffian” is “jovial, plump, and, dissolute”. This production is most definitely jovial - and plump in that its design and action is replete with rich delights. But dissolute? - Falstaff himself and his henchmen Bardolfo and Pistola certainly are, but overall, under the musical command of Johannes Debus, the piece is under careful control. Few works have less tolerance for musical self-indulgence or schlamperei. Overall the musical approach is tight but never strait-jacketed.

Aside from stage direction, Carsen is also listed as lighting co-designer, along ith Peter van Praet and an associate designer, Wendy Greenwood. So much emphasis on this one aspect of production has yielded many effective moments, such as when there is a special focus on the two young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, when they manage fleeting moments together amidst the bustle of the wider action. Simone Osborne and Frédéric Antoun have lighter voices than the rest of the cast and deft treatment like this is one reason why this production manages to bring forward so much delightful detail.

Adding to delight are Brigitte Reiffenstuel's witty costuming and Paul Steinberg's designs. The mere sight fourth scene, the Ford's showcase kitchen, gets a deserved round of applause. Not to mention that the props list for this production must be the longest ever, just what one needs for over-the-top mayhem.

Vocally there are no weak links. This is Gerald Finley’s role debut and he seems a natural for it in every way. It has been 21 years since his last appearance with the COC (as Mozart’s Figaro) - it would be swell if he were to return soon. The other dominant part is that of Mistress Quickly, a role that ideally suits Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s bubbly personality and characterful voice. (And here is another welcome return - she was last here in Rodelinda back in 2005.

We have been hearing fine things about Lyne Fortin for quite some time and it’s great to see her sparkle as Alice Ford. Lauren Segal brings her customary elegance to the role of Meg Page. Russell Braun demonstrates his usual enthusiasm as the other butt of humour in the work, Mister Ford. Michael Colvin beings vivid fury to the role of Dr. Caius.

Placing the action in the late 1950s does no harm and adds a sense of zaniness with, for example, a touch of the Carry On films with occasional emphasis on bosoms and bottoms - proof that Shakespearean bawdiness lives in despite major efforts over the centuries to instill a greater sense of decorum in British society.

The final scene in the forest morphs into a sit-down banquet for soloists and chorus, a gala event on stage that becomes a gala opening for the COC season. COC General Director Alexander Neef has been assiduously negotiating co-productions with major houses; if they all work as well as this one, we are in for a series of major operatic treats.

Michael Johnson



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