Falstaff, Knoxville Opera, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, October 2023
My family didn’t attend the opera when I was young. We made the trek to Nashville a number of times to attend the Grand Ole Opry, but that’s about as close as we got. If your experience parallels mine, you might think opera isn’t for you. Fortunately for me, I’ve had the opportunity to attend and photograph most final dress rehearsals for each of Knoxville Opera’s productions in recent years and I’ve learned to love the form. Wednesday night I attended the final dress rehearsal for “Falstaff,” which Knoxville Opera presents tonight and Sunday.
The language barrier is often cited as a reason opera seems inscrutable. While it might be hard to follow from the libretto, often sung in Italian, I’ve realized I love listening to music in other languages. While the meaning might be obscured, the beauty comes through. With opera you’ve got a couple of major assists: First you can watch the action on stage for clues. That certainly helps, but if that isn’t enough, Knoxville Opera provides a handy translation running directly above the stage on a small, narrow screen.
Another impression I carried with me from my youthful ignorance included the idea that in opera everyone is depressed and then they die. Well . . . sometimes. Like real life, pathos is not hard to find in some operas. In others there are lots of laughs and generally happy endings. You can pick your style.
Some elements, however, almost always accompany a production. Beautiful or engaging sets and great costumes and makeup, for example, provide their own delights independent of the music or the storyline. Additionally, stunning vocal talent performing some of the world’s most beautiful music written by many of its greatest composers, is alone worth the price of a ticket.
The current production by Knoxville Opera features all of the above. “Falstaff” will leave you laughing and happy — no pathos here — and the score by Verdi, while not as melodic as some of his work, shines on its own. Spoiler: No one dies, everyone marries the right person, and everyone has a happy ending.
Verdi debuted this, his final opera, in 1893 as he approached 80 years old. The libretto, written by Arrigo Boito, is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, with a few scenes from Henry IV thrown in for good measure. The farce features an aging, very portly knight, John Falstaff, who attempts to seduce two married women in order to gain their husbands’ wealth. As the various parties plot to make the others look foolish, the end result is the entire cast proclaiming to one another “We are all fools, and we all laugh at each other.”
The work took three years to produce and its initial performance in Milan did not take the world by storm. It got a few other performances around the world and languished until the great Auturo Toscanini revived it at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Other conductors followed over the years, including Leonard Bernstein, and the work has become a standard.
The current performance features some names you might know from previous productions, as well as a few new ones. Dean Anthony is, once again, Stage Director, while Jorge Parodi serves as Conductor. Steven Condy, a seasoned veteran who spent two recent seasons with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, plays the title role to great effect. Costa Rican actor and baritone Kevin Godinez fills the role of Ford. Other primary roles include Derek Stark (Fenton), Tori Patricia Franklin (Alice Ford), Renee Tatum (Dame Quickly), Rebekah Howell (Nanetta), John Overholt (Dr. Caius), Gregory Sliskovich (Bardolfo), James Robinson (Pistolo), and Eliza Bonet (Last seen here in Figaro 2023, Meg Page).
Tickets remain available for tonight and for Sunday afternoon and start at $25. Do yourself a solid. Check it out. Who knows? You may be a latent opera fan.
And if you love the luscious photos, take a deep dive below to the full set.