Great comic opera almost invariably tells the tale of an oversized and meddlesome loud bass-baritone brought down to size by shrewd feminine contrivance. Two of the best examples of the genre occupy consecutive performance dates to conclude Los Angeles Opera’s 19th season; of the two, the name role of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” is by far the more meddlesome and loud. “Immenso Falstaff!,” chorus the two cronies at the start of the opera, and the fabulous Welshman Bryn Terfel — aided by several miles of body padding — fulfills their tribute at full volume.
Hailed worldwide — except, until now, in Los Angeles — for his mastery of the full baritonal range including Mozartian subtleties and Wagnerian tragedy as well as Verdi’s (and Shakespeare’s) galumphing anti-hero, Terfel brings to this great comic role an unusually broad range of emotion. Tricked by Windsor’s merry wives into hiding in a laundry basket, then dumped unceremoniously into the Thames, he actually emerges as a figure worthy of pity, for a moment or two at least, until a glass of sherry sets matters right.
Verdi’s final opera, and his only comic work of consequence, “Falstaff” challenges an opera company’s ability to muster a cast at least as skilled in acting as in singing, and this production comes close. Sopranos Kallen Esperian and Jane Henschel are the conniving women who trick the philandering Falstaff into a fake tryst that leads to his river bath; Celena Shafer and Daniil Shtoda are the adorable juvenile lovers dashing through the action, quoting lines from Petrarch’s love poetry at each other.
Hayden Griffin’s scenery, first seen in a 1982 production mounted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Carlo Maria Giulini on the podium and later taken to London and Florence, has always been more a utilitarian than eye-catching affair, but it has held up well. Mark Jonathan’s lighting and Michael Stennett’s costumes are from later revivals.
Verdi’s magical comedy, of course, bouncing along under Kent Nagano’s airborne beat, holds up best of all.