AVA’s undesperate wives

The opera buzz in Philly has been Tito Capobianco’s guest return to the Academy of Vocal Arts to direct that warhorse Falstaff. In the hands of this internationally acclaimed director and AVA orchestra, there are plenty of theatrical fireworks, certainly. And the simple fact that Maestro Macatsoris just ignites Verdi.

But more than that, this production is scintillating in its operatic balance and scaled perfectly to AVA‘s mini-theater. When company’s are scrambling for new production ideas in opera, AVA shows that sometimes inspired classicism is best.

Falstaff is the opera version of the Merry Wives of Windsor and here milked for its comedy, Capobianco’s hand so stylized that the sung dialogue crackles with ribaldry and he knows how to play it for belly laughs too. His animation is never at the expense of the vocal performances. And to great credit of the cast, terrific character playing, no star turns here, run from tavern boy’s soused mugging all the way up the cast to Falstaff‘s wicked and wry tongue.

It is truly a sleight of body that 22 year old Zach Nelson, a fluid bass-baritone, so convincingly plays the bloaty, bald, boorish Falstaff, who is horny not only for Alice Ford, but anything in a bodice (more about costumes later).

As Alice, a sumptuous faux diva performance, soprano Michelle B. Johnson is his perfect foil. Christopher Bolduc is the boiling cuckold Ford, who expresses every pitch of jealous rage that is exquisite in vocal detailing.

Mezzo soprano Margaret Mezzacappa as Quickly, who sets the farce in motion between Falstaff and his manly entourage and Ford and her merry wives is comedically and vocally stratospheric. The women in textured bodices their breast the focus of several jokes, shake their cleavage trillingly. The clandestine lovers Corinne Schaefer and Taylor Stayton are not only charming, but their vocal chemistry is brought to a gorgeous moonlit finale.

And so this AVA’s Falstaff goes. Verdi is ripe, the designs are Elizabethan court and gutter couture by Val J. Starr who revels in framed bustlines on the women and vented breeches on the men. Zounds! For the cast, the orchestra, Maestro Macatsoris and director Capobianco’s, this Falstaff is a big fat hit.