Now in its sixth season, if one includes last year's which was aborted by the pandemic, the innovative, clever and thoroughly professional Berkshire Opera Festival's single mainstage production is Verdi's delightful, quicksilver Falstaff. The handsomely restored 117 year old Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center seats 600; the house seemed to be at 80% capacity, all of whom were asked to present proof of vaccination and wear masks throughout. The restrictions were welcomed and the occasion was nothing if not festive.

Tamara Wilson (Alice) and Sebastian Catana (Falstaff)
© Ken Howard Photography

Falstaff is one of the few standard repertory operas which truly offers belly laughs; the situations are ribald but the text, by Arrigo Boito after Shakespeare, is witty and not a word is wasted. Verdi was not known for his sense of humor, but you'd never guess it from this, only his second comic work (Un giorno di regno, written 53 years prior, was a dismal flop and remains decidedly unfunny), in which vocal lines are snappy, the text is flawlessly, pointedly set, and the orchestra underlines and comments of the characters' foibles. The intimacy of the Mahaiwe and the clarity of the surtitles assured the comedy's maximum effect. With the almost 40-piece orchestra at audience level and the stage acoustic vibrant, we were treated to what felt like a grand chamber opera designed for a special occasion, like Haydn's at Esterhazy Palace. Laughter was often and hearty.

Hefty, bright-voiced Romanian baritone Sebastian Catana, with at least ten other Verdi roles under his ample belt, made a fine meal of Falstaff, both dramatically and vocally. Pompous, foolish, self-deluded and nasty, his Falstaff was agile and subtle as well: having absolute control over his grand sound allowed him to boom and wheedle, to underline every arrogant word of his "Honor" monologue, and to vocally charm his way through his seduction scenes. He led the final fugue from center stage, house-lights up, and seduced the entire audience.

Jeremy Harr (Pistola), Max Jacob Zander (Bardolfo) and Sebastian Catana (Falstaff)
© Ken Howard Photography

Internationally appreciated soprano Tamara Wilson, previously known to me as a Wagnerian and Straussian, had more than the measure of  Alice Ford, leader of the Merry Wives who teach Falstaff a lesson. The voice is rock solid up to high C and her reading of the text often had a wink of the eye to go along with it – all of these wives were having fun. Mezzo Alissa Anderson, in the scene-stealing role of Mistress Quickly, did just that, her chest voice offering a passive-aggressive "Reverenza!" to Falstaff that he fell for completely. She was also capable of lightening her tone for ensembles. Her Mrs Lovett must also be a delight and she is slated to sing her first Erda soon. Joanne Evans was our Meg Page, a role often underplayed and overlooked – sort of like the viola in the string section – but her fine mezzo and charm impressed. Lyric soprano Jasmine Habersham has a stunning, glowing sound and she looked right as Nannetta, but one wished for some more pianissimo singing, especially in her last act aria.

Jasmine Habersham (Nannetta) and ensemble
© Ken Howard Photography

As to the men, energetic tenor Jonas Hacker's clear sound as Fenton rang out in solos and ensembles, but like his beloved Nannetta, he missed an opportunity to caress the notes in his aria; instead he offered a full-voiced impressive rendition. Ford is a surefire role, with the opera's most brilliant solo, and Met Opera National Council Auditions grand prize winner Thomas Glass lost no opportunity to show off his fine, burnished sound. Pistola and Bardolfo, henchmen to Falstaff, are great roles in the hands of comic actors/singers, and the purposely-awkward, resonant Jeremy Harr and athletic, laser-voiced Max Jacob Zander, respectively, were a delight. Lucas Levy's Dr Caius was a fine comic presence.

The very traditional, if spare, sets – a chair, a table, hedges, a gloomy, huge, dead oak tree – by Stephen Dobay worked perfectly, and Charles Caine's period costumes were apt and colorful. Joshua Major's directing was much like other Falstaffs I've seen (even the old Zeffirelli at the Met), which is to say, intelligent, time-honored, clear, active and avoiding slapstick, all the while being genuinely funny.

Joanne Evans (Meg), Jasmine Habersham (Nannetta), Tamara Wilson, Alissa Anderson (Mistress Quickly)
© Ken Howard Photography

Artistic director, co-founder and conductor Brian Garman was a wizard with this challenging, everything-happening-at-once work. Despite, or perhaps because of the reduced size of the orchestra, Verdi's witty and evanescent score rang clear as a bell. He opted to double the Merry Wives' second act a cappella number with woodwinds – an alternative of Verdi's – and like all of his other choices, it proved right. The opera flies by on the wind; Maestro Garman kept it aloft.

If you're in the area, try to catch the remaining performances. The world could use a laugh.