I’ve often been asked what makes a great opera performance, as opposed to a bad one. A bad film is arguably easier to identify than a bad opera — the sets could be inappropriate, the actors could be bad or insincere, whatever. Opera operates with music that has endured for hundreds of years. It’s very easy to not be able to tell when an opera is bad simply because the music is beautiful and the singers are clearly talented at singing that beautiful music.
So this is my answer to this question: A good opera performance is one that makes you forget that it is a performance. If you never have a moment where you wonder to yourself, “Is this what usually happens in opera?” then it is good. A bad opera performance comes off as aloof and cold; a good opera performance is one that takes you directly out of the opera house and into the characters’ lives.
“Falstaff,” I can safely say, is one of the latter.
The singers of Falstaff transcend the story not only with their voices, but with their incredible talent as actors. There is not a single park-and-bark in the entire show; instead the singers are each clearly invested in portraying their characters. These people are good actors, not just good singers. And for a comedic production such as this, you need people who can be both.
In terms of individual performances, three singers stood out to me. Eduardo Chama is a brilliant Falstaff, not just for his delectable voice but because of his willingness to embrace the physicality of the part. His difficulty of getting down on one knee, the condescending swats he makes at what he believes are fairies… they all make for a wonderfully rakish leading man.
The second performance of note would have to be Nicholas Phan, playing the lover Fenton. For the first time in a long while, here is a tenor who can sing a serenade with a degree of sublety. Phan’s Fenton does not blare or blast his love for Nanetta; he declares it in a a nuanced and sincere manner. Phan proves that tenors do not have to be obnoxious peacocks to be considered talented. He even sings the the lover’s aria in Act 3 with a straight face, bless him.
The final performance I wish to comment on is that of Weston Hurt, playing the lordly Ford. This is not in an attempt to exclude the ladies of the cast (who were all lovely and clearly well cast), but an effort to acknowledge the fact that Hurt played his part after injuring himself. The show still went on even though the guys was wheelchair-bound. And you know what? It worked. It worked so well, in fact, that I would propose that Hurt stay in the wheelchair for the duration of the show’s run. He projects well and creates incredible tone throughout the show, and him being the only seated character lends weight to both his nobility and his status as the only married man at the beginning of the show.
The set of Falstaff is incredibly lovely, but even more impressive is that is is undoubtedly Elizabethan. The directors and design team avoided the temptation to jazz up a Shakespeare-inspired story with modern elements or ironic sets. By going old-school to the extreme (rounded-brick style buildings, handkerchiefs, and Sleeping Beauty-esque dresses abound), the company avoids any possibility of betraying the brilliance of the original story. Compare this to their wannabe avant-garde performance of Don Giovanni earlier this season, and the value of loyalty to the original script is incredible.
I have to give Portland Opera credit: They had a huge opportunity to go all out, crash-and-burn, flaming Aida for their final show of the season. The Great Gatsby movie was ramping up its marketing during production, so the temptation was probably there. But they chose to produce a relatively more mellow show, letting their stars flower in a lower stress environment. As a result, the show is fabulous. It is funny, engaging, and encourages a lot of laughing and rib-jabbing. Just the sort of comedy we need right now.
(All pictures provided by Portland Opera).
**Update: It has come to my attention that Weston Hurt’s injuries have become too severe for him to perform, and he will require surgery. The duration of Falstaff will feature Andre Chiang in the role of Ford.
About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.