La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Opera Hamilton's Falstaff a Scintillating Evening at the Opera

Opera Hamilton's Falstaff a Scintillating Evening at the Opera

- Joseph So

John Fanning (Falstaff)
Lyne Fortin (Alice)
James Westman (Ford)
Ariana Chris (Meg)
Lynne McMurtry (Quickly)
Sasha Djihanian (Nannetta)
Theo Lebow (Fenton)
Jon Paul Decosse (Pistola)
Jeremy Blossey (Bardolfo)
James McLennan (Dr. Caius)

David Speers, conductor
Allison Grant, stage director
Dofasco Centre for the Arts, Oct. 19 2013

Given that 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), opera companies are rushing to present his works. Falstaff is Verdi's swansong and is often considered his masterpiece. Musically it is unlike his early compositions with its oom-pah-pah rhythms and "set pieces" of arias and duets designed to showcase the operatic diva or divo. Rather we have in Falstaff a work that's through-composed, representing the most complete melding of music and drama. Verdi was already an old man of 80 at the time, yet it is the work of a young man, effervescent and full of youthful vitality. While Falstaff isn't as popular as his other works like La traviata or Rigoletto, ranking only 9th among his 28 operas based on the most recent performance statistics (2008/9 - 2012-13), but in a fine performance, it represents a scintillating evening in the theatre.  

With Opera Hamilton's season-opener, this is exactly what we've got - a superb ensemble cast led by veteran baritone John Fanning.  I first heard Mr. Fanning way back in the early 80s as a member of the COC Ensemble Studio, and we are talking about 30 years, folks!  In his early years, Fanning had a fresh and gorgeous baritone. Now in full maturity, the sound has naturally taken on the patina of time, but at the same time his artistry remains undiminished.  If anything, his singing has become more characterful and has attained greater depth. His Sir John was droll but never vulgar - just the way it should be. He sang strongly in a very long role, with firm tone and powerful high notes. It was a performance to honour and enjoy.

Falstaff (John Fanning) and Alice (Lyne Fortin) in Act 2 (Photo: John Overmeyer)

Falstaff is of course a real ensemble piece, and OH is lucky to have a superb cast. As Alice, Quebec soprano Lyne Fortin returns to OH where she had been a welcome guest many times in the past.  The "prima donna" in this opera has no aria, but she does have some great melodies embedded in the ensembles. I particularly loved the way Fortin caressed the phrases "“Facciamo il paio in un amor ridente/di donna bella e d’uom apparicente/Ma il viso tuo su me resplenderà/Come una sorella sull’immensità."  Her high C at the end of the fugue was huge! She was very well supported by the other women - Lynne McMurtry (Quickly), Sasha Djihanian (Nannetta), and Ariana Chris (Meg).  They formed an excellent quartet that really shone all evening. McMurtry has a secure top and a powerful, but not vulgar, chest voice essential in this role - her interactions with Fanning was very well done.  

The merry wives of Windsor (Lynne McMurtry, Lyne Fortin, Ariana Chris, Sasha Djihanian) Photo: John Overmeyer

It was good to finally hear Sasha Djihanian, currently a COC Ensemble Studio member, sing something more substantial than the smaller roles she's been assigned in the past. Visually she was a perfect Nannetta, and her Act 3 aria "Sul fin d'un soffio etesio" was lovely.  I look forward to hearing more from this soprano.  She was ably partnered by American tenor Theo Lebow, a voice new to me. They have very good chemistry together. According to his bio, he has sung Fenton previously at Mannes, where he studied voice. Mr. Lebow displayed a plangent tenor with a sweet timbre, ideal as Fenton. With further seasoning, I predict a fine career for this singer. 

James Westman (Ford) with Bardolfo (Jeremy Blossey), Dr. Caius (James McLennan) and Pistola (Jon Paul Decosse) Photo: John Overmeyer

Canadian baritone James Westman returned to the company after his sensational di Luna in Trovatore two seasons ago.  With his ringing tone and great top notes, Westman has always been ideal in Verdi. His Ford has the necessary gravitas and he acted with excellent comic timing last evening. I don't know if his forgetting to put on his wig in time was an accident or intentional, but it was hilarious just the same! Rumour has it that Westman will return to the Canadian Opera Company in future seasons and we can all look forward to that.

Nannetta (Sasha Djihanian) and Fenton (Theo Lebow) in an intimate moment (Photo: John Overmeyer)

The supporting roles were all well taken, but particularly deserving of mention was the Pistola of Jon Paul Decosse, another former COC Ensemble member, the Bardolfo of Jeremy Blossey, and the Dr. Caius of tenor James McLennan.  I was extremely impressed by the stage direction of Allison Grant, who shows a deep understanding of the drama and the music, offering highly nuanced directorial touches. It's the best work I've seen from her.  Kudos to the OH Orchestra under the baton of David Speers, for performing so beautifully a work that is very exacting in its musical demands.  And one never gets enough rehearsal time in a piece like this, but somehow they've managed to make it work. Considering the orchestra is small (about 30), it acquitted itself very well. It's just too bad the acoustics in this hall is so unfriendly to the orchestra. All in all, it was a fine achievement by a regional company like OH, one that has seen its challenges financially and artistically over the years. It has its loyal supporters, however.  I noticed in the program that the "new scenic realization" is made possible by the generous donation of Dr. Wally Pieczonka, who is of course soprano Adrianne Pieczonka's father.  The Pieczonka family are long time residents of Burlington and an strong supporter of the arts. Adrianne herself has sung for OH in the past. It's through the generosity of ordinary citizens like Dr. Pieczonka and you and I that keep the arts alive in Canada. I say 'Bravo' to him. 

And as I've said before, last evening was indeed a performance to honour and enjoy.

A happy bunch of principals enjoying the audience accolades (Photo: Joseph So)

The creative team takes a bow front and center (l. to r. Paul Cegys, Allison Grant, Troy Hourie) Photo: Joseph So

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