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Sunday, November 09, 2014


From the Vault Dept.: My list of favorite operas is headed by Verdi’s “Falstaff.” My list of favorite performances includes Richard McKee’s turn as the lusty knight, performed with the Lake George Opera in 1990. Here’s my review.


Verdi’s “Falstaff” is a transitional work that masks its forward-thinking character with an incredibly bubbly humor. On the surface it looks like a bass-baritone’s tour de force. Dig a little deeper and you discover an ensemble piece to which everyone must give of their best_especially the conductor.

David Kellett, Richard McKee, and Gary Aldrich
Photo by Rusty Ridell

Revived by the Lake George Opera Festival Saturday night, it brought back Richard McKee, star of the 1976 production. This is a man who was born to sing Falstaff, and if, as I suspect, God has a taste for Italian opera, McKee’s tasks in Heaven will include frequent performances of this piece.

And because there are only two more performances – 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday – you really should ignore the rest of this review and just order yourself some tickets. This is the kind of performance that will delight all fans of good musical theater and could even make an opera-loving convert out of you.

One secret is to have a great Falstaff, of course, but there’s much more. What’s transitional about the piece is that it looked beyond the tradition (helped by Verdi) of opera as a bunch of big moments to a more dramatically-unified style. That Verdi should have chosen a comedy to accomplish this is an even greater testimony to his genius.

“Falstaff’s” score is a rich weave of melody, motif and just-right coloration. The libretto, by Boito (himself a composer) captures the comic sparkle of Shakespeare’s characters. The audience laughed – and laughed often – at moments designed to be funny or at actions that were logically inspired by the characters.

And there’s another secret: draw the humor from the piece, don’t impose it. Director J. Scott Brumit didn’t stint on allowing business, but it was almost always supported by character or music. His staging very often achieved a transparency to match that of the music.

Although the Boito Falstaff doesn’t achieve the depth of character eventually shown in Shakespeare’s, McKee gave him a wonderfully woeful edge. This is a Falstaff wholly secure in the appeal of his massive girth. He needs money and is prepared to exchange his ardor for it. The fact that others don’t share his point of view is cause for some distress.

Having seen a season’s worth of opera performed by this company, there’s an added dimension of enjoyment in watching now-familiar singers in different roles, each of them obviously having a terrific time.

For Margaret O’Keefe, it’s a chance to go from early to late adolescence. She has the plum part of Nanetta, whose tuneful romance with Fenton (Philip Bologna) is as amusing as any of the other sub-plots – but requires a very lovely voice. She was captivating, especially in her third-act scene as a Queen of the Fairies.

Bologna, last seen as the Governor in “A Masked Ball,” acts appealingly Dick Powell-like as Nanetta’s boyfriend (and “Masked Ball” fans should keep their eyes sharpened for an inside joke that hurries by during the chaos that ends Act Two).

Robert Honeysucker, another “Masked Ball” alumnus, goes up against McKee as the jealous Dr. Ford. It’s a role that easily can fall into two dimensions (an explosive Act Two aria notwithstanding), but Honeysucker makes it believable even as he serves as a skilled comic foil, fighting both his anger and, unintentionally, an uncooperative hat.

Returning in triumph to the Lake George Opera for this production is soprano Carol Bayard, whose Alice (wife of Ford, inamorata of Falstaff) is a portrait of flute-voiced dignity.

All of the women’s parts require very skilled singers who also can act, and Eleanor Kelley and Dani Raphael complete the quartet beautifully as Meg and Dame Quickly.

Raphael, who was a scream as the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” has the kind of presence that can go up against a scene-stealer like McKee and emerge triumphant.

In truth, there is a seamless sense of ensemble at work here. Falstaff’s lackeys, Bardolph and Pistol, are given little touches of outrageousness by David Kellett and Gary Aldrich that work splendidly in their context. Gary Gunder, who has already proven himself to be a marvelously versatile character singer, goes the distance as Dr. Caius, a fitting cap to his season here.

Only once did the production falter. During the forest scene that ends Act Three, a procession of fairies and elves is brought out, which gives the Lake George Opera’s chorus and kids a chance onstage. They could have used some stricter choreography to control what looked a little chaotic; I also quarrel with the idea of sending them out armed with too-anachronistic paraphernalia like plastic pinwheels and fiber-optic lights.

The (literally) unsung hero of the evening, however, is conductor John Balme, who worked the orchestra against its damnable handicap of being remanded backstage to as good an effect as was possible.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 13 August 1990

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