At the LA Opera, Stephen Lawless' production of Verdi's "Falstaff" is for the most part based on Shakespeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor." The program notes say it includes material from "Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, but this one also has a healthy dose of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the end. We have outstanding sets by Hayden Griffin with lush period costumes by Michael Stennett. All of the characters overact their parts. The curtain rises on Sir John at a table at the Garter Inn. He takes up a sizable amount of the stage as he quarrels with Dr. Caius. He's joined by the scruffy scoundrels Bardolph and Pistol. When the stoic Innkeeper discovers that he can't pay for his fare, plump Jack hatches his scheme to seduce Alice Ford and Meg Page. He reels around the stage like a Redd Fox type character celebrating his girth and on the verge of succumbing "To the Big One." Meanwhile as Alice and Meg discover that they have received the same love letter, addressed to the different women, they plot to teach Falstaff a lesson. The second scene is the Ford's beautiful garden. The brick wall of the house is at the rear, with a green hedge at the right. Fallen leaves are scattered around the front of the stage. After being summoned to a secret tryst with Alice, Falstaff appears at a Frans Hals type cavalier. He has his naples yellow suit, big wide brimmed hat with feathers, a red sash, and that Frans Hals smirk. The action moves to the interior of the Ford's spacious house. We have dark wood Panels, big windows at the back, and a balcony. Sir John is gently teased and rebuffed by Alice. When her husband, who suspects mischief appears, Falstaff hides behind a screen while papers are thrown in the air, there's a pillow fight on the balcony as feathers fly, and dirty laundry is thrown around while Ford and his friends looks for Falstaff. As the search moves elsewhere, he he is hidden in the laundry basket covered with the dirty clothes. The searchers return, discover movement behind the screen, and frantically gather around the table to plot a military style assault. When they storm the screen, they find only Ford's daughter Nannetta and her lover, Fenton. The servants then dump the dirty linen, Fat Jack included into the Thames. Ford realizes the trick and they all have a good laugh.

The third act opens with Falstaff washed up on the river bank. We have Jack-o-Lanterns around the stage. he is melodramatically absorbed in self pity as he contemplates his situation, and the true meaning of his existence. This is Verdi at his best, as everyone mockingly spies on him. When he receives a second summons to meet Alice, we move to the big Oak. This turns into a beautiful "Midsummer Night's Dream" scene with a sparkling star lit sky and fairies dancing around Falstaff, who huddles in his cloak and a big antlered hat, so he won't see them and die. We're told that "The whole world is but a joke, and man is a born jester." When Falstaff recognizes Bardolph, the plot is exposed. This scene is strikingly like "the play within a play" in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." We even have the double wedding as Dr. Caius is united with the disguised Bardolph, instead of Nannetta, who is really married to Fenton, and all live happily ever after. Kathleen Brett and Greg Fedderly are a sweet voiced pair of lovers. They fit perfectly together and provide real warmth in this otherwise hysterically madcap adventure. Gregory Yurisich is a huge, strong Falstaff. Robert Orth is one of the finest singing actors around. His Ford is sharp and caustic, but lyrical. Ashley Putnam is a lively Alice along with Suzanna Guzman's Meg. "Falstaff" is Verdi at his very best. The bouncy rhythms that seem so out of place in serious drama like "Don Carlo" are perfect here. Always a master in his vocal writing this contains some of his most lyrical work. Gabriele Ferro conducted this outstanding production of Verdi's "Falstaff" at The L A Opera.

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