Resonance Works artistic director Maria Sensi Sellner writes that the mission of the small company she founded here in Pittsburgh four years ago is to “showcase outstanding professional artists from Pittsburgh and beyond.” That’s a mission well-fulfilled this past weekend, which brought together an ensemble of world-class vocal and instrumental musicians to perform Verdi’s Falstaff at the Charity Randall Theater in the Cathedral of Learning.
The talent showcased in the production included some performers new to Pittsburgh. Baritone Benjamin Bloomfield brought both a suitably large presence and a grand, mellifluous lustre to his interpretation of Falstaff as a longhaired king of the road, and baritone Joshua Jeremiah was a vocal standout among the cast in the role of Ford, the wealthy husband Falstaff seeks to cuckold. Also new to our stages was soprano Natalie Polito, who sang the role of Nanetta with sweetness and clarity. In addition, the production brought back to town (after too long an absence) the gifted tenor Joseph Gaines, who was delightful as the priggish, uptight Dr. Caius, and featured as well a number of artists whose work has electrified Pittsburgh audiences in previous Resonance Works productions, including sopranos Kara Cornell and Amelia D’Arcy and tenor Christopher Lucier.
Together the orchestra and vocalists rendered Verdi’s complicated music with precision and control, and at times the singers, who sharply enunciated their consonants and tightly rolled their Italianate “r’s,” seemed as much a part of the percussion section of the orchestra as they were characters in the story. I mean that as high praise – the coordination and interweaving of voice and orchestra constituted a primary pleasure of this production. But part of what contributed to our perception of that blending was a pair of awkwardly positioned astroturf-covered boxes, meant to represent hedges, behind which too much of the action was hidden from view, making the production more a pleasure for the ears than for the eyes. Indeed, stage director Stephanie Havey seemed stymied by the challenges presented by Gianni Downs’s ill-conceived scenic design. Aside from a few moments of inventive staging in the second act that captured the commedia dell’arte spirit of the world of the play with comic lazzi and slo-mo tumbling, the staging was generally vague and confusing, with scene changes occuring in the middle of songs, movement patterns that lacked motivation and choreographic specificity, and a space that, in several scenes, seemed simply overcrowded and muddled.
The storytelling was clear nevertheless, thanks to strong acting as well as singing on the part of the entire cast, with particularly lucid and humorous characterizations from Benjamin Robinson and Matthew Scollin as Falstaff’s henchmen, and from Gaines, Jeremiah, and Bloomfield as Caius, Ford, and Falstaff. The production didn’t have to do much to encourage us to see contemporary resonance in Falstaff’s misogyny, mendacity, and moneygrubbing, and the opera’s ending – an astonishingly complex multipart fugue that Verdi wrote to prove his critics wrong – brought down the house with its reminder (one proved all too true in the last couple of days with the chaotic news from Washington) that “Tutto nel mondo è burla” – “All the world is folly.”