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WIXELL SINGS TITLE ROLE : PONNELLE STAGES A FUNNY ‘FALSTAFF’ IN SAN FRANCISCO

Times Music Critic

Verdi’s “Falstaff” must be the most human of comedies. As such, it forces its interpreters to confront some precarious balances.

The balances involve the composer’s magical, subtle, autumnal score as opposed to the ribald wit of the Shakespearean source. But even that source can be a precarious proposition. The humor, after all, arises from the predicament of very real characters who happen to find themselves in potentially farcical situations.

Perfect “Falstaff” performances--one isn’t likely to see many in a lifetime--define and respect the line separating the ridiculous and the sublime. Imperfect “Falstaff” performances--one encounters them all the time--veer too much in one stylistic direction or another.

When Carlo Maria Giulini presented his celebrated version of Verdi’s valedictory masterpiece with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, all observers lauded the poetry and the sensitivity of the endeavor. But some simply found the whole elaborate exercise too, too serious. It was human, to be sure, but hardly a comedy.

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Now Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, an often inspired if potentially undisciplined stage director, has introduced his vision of “Falstaff” to the San Francisco Opera. It is a comedy, to be sure, but it isn’t very human.

There is a certain irony here. In an illuminating program-magazine article and in an interview with this writer, Ponnelle has expounded at length on the profundities of the libretto.

He claims that he sees Sir John as an authoritative, intelligent, sexually still-potent knight who just happens to have come upon hard times. Falstaff certainly is not a clown. Moreover, Ponnelle says he regards the so-called merry wives as class-conscious schemers who come close to being sadists. He says he finds Ford a man consumed with destructive, virtually psychotic jealousy. Only the young lovers represent voices of reason and sympathy.

Ponnelle’s theories make exemplary sense. Unfortunately, few of those theories were on view Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House.

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Instead of offering eloquently amusing comments on human frailty, Ponnelle gave us a very clever, very self-conscious, very affected gag show. It was busy-busy-busy, occasionally riotous, always fun to watch, usually disconcerting to think about. Most damaging, it tended to trample on Verdi’s essential sentiment.

Ponnelle gave us a Falstaff in the person of Ingvar Wixell who sported a bulbous false nose, a permanent smirk and twin tufts of carrot-red hair. He did not stoop to vile buffoonery, but he didn’t allow many glimpses of nobility or erotic power, either. And, after his dunking in the Thames, he did climb out of the presumably watery orchestra pit for a cheap laugh as prelude to his most poignant monologue.

Ponnelle gave his Falstaff a pair of servants who spent most of the evening rolling on the floor and practicing slapstick routines. This Sir John had to contend with a Dr. Caius who masqueraded as Elmer Fudd, and a Ford who pranced about like a crazed fop. The mature-looking Fenton and Nannetta drew graffiti hearts on the proscenium arch and practiced lusty embraces on the floor while singing the most ethereal love music.

Ponnelle improved on Verdi by introducing a new character, a mute dunce pretending to Mr. Page. He invented all manner of distracting business for a page boy, for assorted townsfolk and for the Ford household servants. He even ruined the lyrical shimmer of Nannetta’s aria by bringing on some cutesy kiddies dressed as hopping hay stacks and tree stumps.

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One could savor the charm of sets originally created for Glyndebourne in 1976 and now expanded for the larger San Francisco stage. An adorable three-dimensional model of bucolic Windsor--or was it Lewes in Sussex?--loomed in the picturesque background. Ponnelle the designer provided Ponnelle the director with real rainy vistas, spotlit shadow shows and intimate escapades that spilled the action beyond the confines of the fake Tudor proscenium.

Although Verdi had to play second fiddle here to Ponnelle, the musical values were decent. Maurizio Arena conducted with brio and flair if not much delicacy, while the ensemble entered whole-heartedly into the jokey charades.

Wixell encountered some difficulties with the high climaxes and with the falsetto maneuvers in Act I, but, for the most part, sang the title role--really sang it--with solid panache. Under the special circumstances, he can be forgiven if his fat and funny knight owed more to Rabelais than to the Bard.

The quartet of feminist antagonists was led by Pilar Lorengar, whose Mistress Ford now suffers from an overdose of vocal bleach. Marilyn Horne introduced a relatively subdued, cutesy Quickly who resorted to arbitrary vowel changes for chesty contralto impact. This Dame chose to sing “Rever ohn za” where the silly librettist happened to specify “Reverenza.”

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Susan Quittmeyer demanded attention as the spunky Meg Page. Ruth Ann Swenson, the Nannetta, reveled in floating high, virginal, pianissimo tones.

Walter MacNeil partnered her as a tasteful if rather dry-sounding Fenton. The best of the foolish gentlemen of Windsor turned out to be Alan Titus, who made a passionate tour de force of Ford’s aria. Remy Corazza disfigured Caius’ music with caricature. Joseph Frank and Kevin Langan stumbled and bumbled faithfully as the cartoonish Bardolfo and Pistola.

The final coup de theatre entailed a mocking company lineup as the houselights rose and the entire cast celebrated the climactic realization that “all the world’s a jest.” Although the audience responded with an automatic ovation, it was difficult to tell if the ultimate triumph belonged to the composer, the poet, the director, or the participants.

“Tutto nel mondo e burla,” indeed.

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