A highlight of the Santa Fe Opera’s 2022 season is Sir David McVicar’s extraordinary production of Verdi’s final masterpiece, “Falstaff”, starring Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey in the title role.
Quinn Kelsey’s Sir John Falstaff
Falstaff is a role that encompasses a range of emotions, acting skills and comic timing. In a bravura performance, Quinn Kelsey showed mastery of the role’s demands, projecting each of the facets of the iconic character. He portrayed Falstaff’s narcissistic self-delusion as to his attractiveness to women that allowed Falstaff to pursue romantic endeavors in both halves of the opera, each effort ending with humiliating results. Kelsey convincingly portrayed Falstaff’s deeply felt despair at being dumped into a drainage ditch, as well as Falstaff’s final, good-natured self-realization (Incomincio ad accorgermi d’esser stato un somaro) that he brought his humiliations on himself.
Unlike the imposing arias and duets of most Verdi baritone roles, the arias assigned to Falstaff (e.g., L’onore, ladri and Quand’ero paggio dei Duca di Norfolk – both nicely performed by Kelsey with humor and an insight into Falstaff’s humanity) – are short responses to other characters’ prompts.
[Below: Falstaff (Quinn Kelsey) is angry that he suffered the indignity of having to hide in a smelly laundry basket, and then being dumped into a watery ditch; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
For over a decade I have been privileged to watch Kelsey perform such iconic Verdi baritone roles as Germont [Review: San Francisco Opera’s Pérez, Costello, Kelsey Lineup Leads to High Scoring “Traviata” – July 5, 2014], the Count di Luna, [Review: Golden Age Verdi Singing for Lyric Opera’s “Il Trovatore” – Chicago, October 27, 2014], Rigoletto [Review: Quinn Kelsey a World Class Verdi baritone in “Rigoletto” – San Francisco Opera, May 31, 2017] and the Marquis di Posa [Review: “Don Carlo” – Washington National Opera’s World Class Verdi Singing, March 14, 2018]. Adding Kelsey’s excellent Falstaff to this list proves him to be a Verdi baritone of the first rank.
[Below: Falstaff (Quinn Kelsey) has been persuaded to appear costumed as Herne the Hunter at Herne’s Oak in Windsor Park; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photographm courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
[For my conversation with him earlier in his career, see: Rising Stars: An Interview With Quinn Kelsey.]
Alexandra LoBianco’s Alice Ford and Roland Wood’s Ford
Florida soprano Alexandra LoBianco, in her Santa Fe Opera debut, was a stylish Alice Ford. This was my first opportunity to see her in a principal role (I had previously seen her as one of the Valkyrie sisters in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2017 performance of Wagner’s “Die Walkure”.) As Alice, she exhibited the sumptuous voice that has established her reputation as a dramatic soprano in the major dramatic soprano roles of Wagner, Verdi and Puccini.
[Below: Falstaff (Quinn Kelsey, left), bedecked in his finery, attempts to attract the attention of Alice Ford (Alexandra LoBianco, right); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Alice’s husband, Ford, was performed by British baritone Gordon Wood. Although I had seen him perform the role of Germont in Verdi’s “La Traviata” at Santa Fe Opera nine years ago, it is this year’s performance as Ford that has most impressed me. Wood delivered Ford’s big aria E sogno, o realta?, one of Verdi’s best baritone arias, with a sturdy voice and dramatic persuasiveness.
(In another Verdi opera, the aria’s big climax would have led to an audience ovation, but In this opera, as Ford’s aria finishes, Falstaff changes the mood immediately by walking onstage in the outfit he has chosen – see photo above – to court Ford’s wife.)
[Below: Roland Wood as Ford; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Elena Villalon’s Nannetta and Eric Ferring’s Fenton
Texas soprano Elena Villalon, also in her Santa Fe Opera debut, was a delight in the role of Nannetta, the daughter of Alice and Ford. As the fairy queen, Nannetta leads the congregation of townspeople dressed as Windsor Park fairies. Villalon’s attractive lyric coloratura voice was beautifully employed for the fairy queen’s enchanting aria Sul fil d’un soffio etesio.
[Below: Nannetta, costumed as the fairy queen (Elena Villalon, right) commands the Windsor Park fairy hordes; edited image, bsed on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco OPera.]
This was my third opportunity to review a Villalon performance, following Houston Grand Opera performances of Donizetti’s “La Favorite” [Review: Jamie Barton, a Phenomenon in “La Favorite” – Houston Grand Opera, January 24, 2020] and the opera “A Snowy Day” [Streamed World Premiere Review: Joel Thompson’s and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s “The Snowy Day” – A Child-friendly Opera for the Winter Holidays, Houston Grand Opera, December 9, 2021], each performance confirming Villalon’s impressive operatic talent.
[Below: Nannetta (Elena Villalon, left) receives a kiss from her lover, Fenton (Eric Ferring, right); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Fenton, the love interest of Villalon’s Nannetta, was portrayed by Iowa tenor Eric Ferring, a 2017 Santa Fe Opera Apprentice. Ferring’s sang Fenton’s romantic aria Sul fil d’un soffio etesio, expressing Fenton’s love for Nannetta with the elegant, leggiero tenor that one expects of this role.
[Below: Eric Ferring as Fenton; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Megan Marino’s Meg Page and Ann McMahon Quintero’s Dame Quickly
Colorado mezzo-soprano Megan Marino was a vivacious Meg Page, in what has been my second opportunity, after a Dallas Opera “Falstaff”, to see her in this role [Review: World Class Performances and Rollicking Fun in The Dallas Opera’s “Falstaff” – April 28, 2019]
[Below: Megan Marino as Meg Page; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Accomplished in both singing and acting, Marino was a 2015 Santa Fe Opera Apprentice. Subsequently, Marino has performed key mezzo roles for the company as Suzuki [Review: A Stunning “Madama Butterfly” Starring Kelly Kaduce – Santa Fe Opera, June 30, 2018] and Cherubino [Review: A Clockwork “Marriage of Figaro” Delights – Santa Fe Opera, July 23, 2021].
My one quibble with an almost perfect production and cast was the staging of an uncharacteristically meek first encounter between Dame Quickly, portrayed by New York mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero and Falstaff. Traditionally, Quicklys, bringing replies to his love letters from Mistresses Ford and Page, disarm Falstaffs with an overpowering, repeated salutation Reverenza. This provides a running gag through the performance whenever the two characters meet again.
Although an exaggerated Reverenza was the case with every other Quickly in my experience from the first (the great Italian mezzo Giulietta Simionato) to the most recent prior performance (New York mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe in The Dallas Opera’s performance cited above), for whatever reason, that tradition was ignored in this production. Elsewhere in the production, including the ensembles, Quintero met my expectations.
[Below: Ann McMahon Quintero as Dame Quickly; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Brian Frutiger’s Doctor Caius, Thomas Cilluffo’s Bardolfo and Scott Conner’s Pistola
The supporting male comic roles – Caius, Pistola and Bardolfo – were in competent hands. Kansas tenor Brian Frutiger was an oily, but well-sung, Doctor Caius. The promise to Caius that he could marry Nannetta Ford by her father (over Nannetta’s objections) did not end the way either Ford or Caius planned.
[Below: Doctor Caius (Brian Frutiger, right) is delighted that Ford (Roland Wood, left) has promised his daughter in marriage to him; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Falstaff’s disloyal henchmen, the scoundrels Bardolfo and Pistola, provide opporutnities for outrageous humor. Pistola was performed by Missouri bass Scott Conner, who delighted Santa Fe audiences four years earlier as Mustafa [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Delightful “Italian Girl in Algiers” – July 25, 2018] and, the next year, as the King of Clubs in Philadelphia [Review: Opera Philadelphia’s Richly Melodic, Laugh-filled “Love for Three Oranges” – September 20, 2019]. Pistola’s partner in mischief is Michigan tenor Thomas Cilluffo, a current Santa Fe Opera Apprentice, whose hilarious shenanigans suggest his great promise as a buffo performer.
[Below: Falstaff’s discontented associates, Pistola (Scott Conner, left) and Bardolfo (Thomas Cilluffo, right) have joined forces with Ford (Roland Wood, center); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Maestro Paul Daniel and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and Susanne Sheston and the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Chorus
British Maestro Paul Daniel led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in a spirited, fast-paced performance of Verdi’s opera, keeping orchestra and all nine principal singers and Apprentice singers (sometimes all singing at once) in synchrony. The members of the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Chorus, under the direction of Utah chorus director Susanne Sheston, performed creditably.
Sir David McVicar’s Production
Scottish director Sir David McVicar made his Santa Fe Opera debut with this beautifully concieved production of “Falstaff” A McVicar operatic production can be counted on for faithfulness to the opera’s music and libretto, and for often original conceptualizations that enhance the opera’s theatricality.
[Below: Sir David McVicar; publicity photograph from the Los Angeles Opera.]
In addition to the staging, McVicar also designed the sets and costumes, which reflected Elizabethan times.
[Below: the basic unit set for David McVicar’s Santa Fe Opera production of “Falstaff”, edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Particularly effective were the imaginative costumes for the fairies in the Windsor Park scene.
[Below: two of the fairies in the Windsor Park scene; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
[Below: two additional fairies in the Windsor Park scene; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
I regard Sir David McVicar’s production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” to be one of the most brilliant and effective productions in a decade and a half of my reviewing Santa Fe Opera performances. I recommend it for both the veteran opera goer and the person new to opera.