This November, the Opéra de Montréal celebrates Verdi’s bicentennial with a laugh, presenting his comic opera Falstaff. The revival of David Gately’s production, originally produced by Glimmerglass Opera and the recently deceased New York City Opera, received no shortage of snickers during Saturday’s première performance with Opéra de Montréal.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux & Oleg Bryjak © Yves Renaud
Marie-Nicole Lemieux & Oleg Bryjak
© Yves Renaud

Adapted by Verdi and his librettist Boito, Falstaff is mostly based on Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. The overfed Falstaff is out of money and attempts to pay his bills by seducing two wealthy women, Alice Ford and Meg Page. More fat then clever, he is twice tricked by the very women he attempts to victimize, and the opera ends with the conclusion that “Tutto nel mondo è burla” (“Everything in the world is a joke”).

In an opera loaded with fat jokes and sexual innuendo, a director would have to try hard not to make audiences laugh. In that regard, Verdi and Shakespeare might deserve more credit for entertaining the audience than stage director Gately. In fact, Gately could have been more indulgent in an opera in which the title character finds himself literally tossed out with the laundry. Gately’s Falstaff, with its relatively middle-of-the-road approach to staging situational comedy, could have been more lively with more vibrant production designs.

For the first two hours of the opera, John Conklin’s sets consisted primarily of beige flats that were rearranged during noisome pauses between scenes. Though some furniture was changed, and for Act II, Scene II a staircase was added, the set remained essentially the same: a variation on the same beige flats. The costumes are done in muted tons that fade in the beige background.

The designs for the final scene of the opera, set in an “enchanted” wood, offered some relief after two hours of monochrome. With characters costumed as fairies, elves, dryads and sylphs, all dancing beneath a giant moonlit oak, the scenario is the stuff of production designer’s dreams. Conklin’s fanciful puppets à la Julie Taymor added some interest. But overall, the costumes and set fell short of the scene’s design potential. We must take into account that Conklin was no doubt financially constrained when designing this Falstaff – still, minimal designs do not necessarily need to be quite so banal.

Luckily, the success of any Falstaff relies mainly in the strength of its singers, more so than the stage direction or production design. Baritone Oleg Bryjak performed admirably in the title role. He was well supported by an enthusiastic ensemble of (primarily) Canadian singers.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux was a delight as Mistress Quickly, a role she has performed to great acclaim in Paris and Munich. Lemieux’s robust contralto stood out in both the women’s quartet and larger ensembles. Though her comedic timing was excellent throughout her performance, she was particularly amusing at the beginning of Act II, when she sets the bait for Falstaff that traps him in the following scenes. She enters Falstaff’s chambers with a courteous “reverenza”, though soon finds herself in bed with him. While we must credit Gately for blocking this scene, Lemieux should be commended for her hilarious performance, never sacrificing comedy for proper vocal technique.

Aline Kutan, in the role of Nanetta, was another standout among the spirited ensemble of voices on stage. In an opera dominated by comedy, the role of Nanetta provides some romance to the drama and along with it, opportunities for lyricism in the score. One of the musical highlights of the whole opera is the theme for Nanetta and her lover Fenton set to an Italian proverb: “Bocca baciata non perde ventura, anzi rinnova come fa la luna” (“The mouth, once kissed, does not lose its fortune: indeed it renews itself just like the moon”). During this phrase, Kutan must sing a high A for nearly six full measures on the word “luna”. Her voice shimmered. Her silvery soprano added to the enchantment in the opera’s last scene, when dressed as the Fairy Queen, she summons spirits in the aria “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” (“On the breath of the summer breeze”).

Falstaff repeats on 12, 14 and 16 November at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Places des Arts. The Opéra de Montréal will perform excerpts from Falstaff in an upcoming gala, along with selections from Aida, Trovatore, Otello, and other beloved Verdi operas.