It may have taken Verdi’s bicentennial to bring Falstaff back to the San Francisco Opera, but at last the knight has returned to the company’s stage for the first time in over a decade... and in fine form! Local audiences have ample opportunity to hear Falstaff this season with productions in San Jose, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara, not to mention an important new production in New York at the Metropolitan Opera, but San Francisco’s run is more than a stop on the award tour for Verdi’s venerated yet rarely produced work. Of all these productions, only San Francisco’s can boast Bryn Terfel, the Falstaff of our day, as its leading man.

Bryn Terfel (Falstaff) and Ainhoa Arteta (Alice Ford) © Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
Bryn Terfel (Falstaff) and Ainhoa Arteta (Alice Ford)
© Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Arrigo Boito’s libretto tells the story of Sir John Falstaff, a thief, rogue, drunk, and, above all, former knight and gentleman, who hatches a scheme to woo two married ladies to win access to their fortunes. Though outwitted and embarrassed by Alice Ford and her friends, the knight’s unaffected charm and resilience show a triumphant human spirit. Written when the composer was 80, Falstaff is the final word from the composer who created so many intense operatic masterpieces. This one simmers with a different intensity, one that highlights the foibles of human behavior, the beauty of young love, and the transformative power of art.

Originating in 1999 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Olivier Tambosi’s well-traveled production, with sets and costumes by Frank Philipp Schlössmann, is surprisingly spare for an opera that sparkles with melodic invention and color. Playing on a single unit set with floor, walls, and roof of stained wood, the production is visually monotonous. Stairways emerge from the walls and windows appear unexpectedly to convey different scenes such as Ford’s house or the Windsor Forest, but overall the wooden encasement restrains the work’s liveliness. Whether Tambosi’s intent was to evoke the interior of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre or to focus attention on the characters of the opera, I found the production’s monolithic veneer to be oppressive.

As if to compensate for the sameness of settings, Tambosi requires his players to gesture and scurry wildly around the stage in every scene. The famous vocal fugue at the end was the only crowd scene that was handled without antics, drawing attention to Verdi’s musical structure through a clever physical deployment of singers in a line across the footlights.

Bryn Terfel has been performing and perfecting his characterization of Sir John for years. Amid the hysteric stage business, it was amazing to witness his calm command as the beating heart of the work. Embodying the dignified poise and pomposity of his character, Terfel’s Falstaff is no buffoon. When Falstaff, drenched and shamed after being dumped into the river by his would-be mistresses, Terfel sat with a towel covering his face, experiencing a real crisis. After warming himself with some mulled wine, he lifted the towel from his face, determined to give another hopeless go at Alice and/or Meg. I resist calling this opera “life-affirming” because that phrase has become cliché and trite, but Terfel’s characterization plumbed the bittersweet core of Verdi’s work and revealed a noble, if somewhat dulled, grace. And he sings! Displaying an extra gear vocally, Terfel’s witty proclamations could always be heard whether stentorian or softly uttered falsetto.

Besides the titular star, this ensemble work was served by an ensemble cast that showed definite strengths and weaknesses. Alice Ford is a role that attracts divas and Spanish soprano Ainhoa Arteta’s full-throttle Alice was well sung if occasionally overdone. Renee Rapier as Meg Page showed, at times, a pleasant tone, but was difficult to hear and frequently got a little lost in the mix. I last heard Heidi Stober here as a big-voiced Pamina in The Magic Flute and she again showed a voluminous, textured voice, though one not typically heard in the role of Nannetta. Her lover, Fenton, was portrayed with ardent longing by tenor Francesco Demuro. I found little ring or rose in Meredith Arwady’s resonant contralto as Mistress Quickly, but her musicality and keen phrasing were on Terfel’s level. In his local debut, Fabio Capitanucci as Ford was guilty of some of the night’s worst overacting, an occupational hazard of the role, but sang with more conservative taste.

Some might argue that the most important character in any production of Falstaff is not the baritone in the title role, but the conductor. Music director Nicola Luisotti led with the accustomed passionate devotion he has shown other pillars of the Italian repertory, but his exuberance and care for the orchestral flourishes frequently overwhelmed his singers. The female ensembles fared least well in the battle to be heard. As the leading man exhibited great control and range, I hoped in vain for a similar tempered balance from the pit.