A jolly afternoon, a ‘happening, as we used to say, took place this past Sunday (1/22/17) at the Kaye Playhouse @ Hunter College in Manhattan where the Bronx Opera played its final performance of Sir John in Love, arguably the finest and grandest opera of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is fitting that it received such loving treatment here, for the opera itself and the late Vaughan Williams himself are significant parts of the Company’s history: this was the third BxO production of Sir John in Love in their 50 seasons, and indeed it was an honor to witness the Company’s Artistic Director and co-founder Michael Spierman conduct it. ‘Twas he who made it happen then, as it happened today.
Critical to the jollies of the day were a spirited cast and crisp stage direction by Benjamin Spierman, all played out in the intimate Kaye. The singers, all of them, seemed to embrace and enjoy their roles, their music, and their colleagues on stage and off. Small gestures and expressions spoke pages; audience reactions, encouraging them on, were duly registered and reciprocated, creating a real artistic synergy. The magic of live performance lies in extended moments like these.
Sir John is Love is drawn primarily from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, which, as most opera fans know well, is also the source for Verdi’s Falstaff. But RVW’s Sir John covers a greater range of the source characters than the Verdi: in the RVW we have three rascals attached to Falstaff, not two, and we have two, count ‘em, two unwanted suitors for sweet Anne Page, but only one for Nannetta Ford in the Verdi (though in both the desired young suitor, the love interest for Anne/Nannetta is a tenor named Fenton). And then there are a few other Windsor folks who in the Verdi are more or less silent. Or simply left out.
Central to the plot is Sir John Falstaff, sung vigorously by a grand, larger-than-life Benjamin Bloomfield, who, contrary to his size, moves with remarkable lightness. These touches made the rapturous composition of his love song, his “seduction” of Alice Ford and his ensuing narrow escape in the basket all the more humorous. Bloomfield’s eyes and face reveal a wry, playful soul. The three rascals variously by his side are Bardolph (Albert Neal), Nym (Will Berman), and Pistol (John Cossio), each well taken.
Of the Windsor families, the Pages (not the Fords as in Verdi) are tangled in the young love story running as an undercurrent beneath the titled plot. Anne Page (Barbee Monk) is the daughter of George (Nick Miller) and Meg Page (Mary-Hollis Hundley). Though she feigns good girl compliance, Anne is really in love with young Fenton (Tom Mulder), a gentleman at Court. Monk and Mulder are tender together in their fine duets, contributing a great deal to the surrounding warmth and joy bubbling up frequently from the score.
Hundley is a merry merry wife, ‘merry’ intentionally said here twice, a real pleasure to watch on stage, especially with her co-conspirator Alice Ford (Hannah Spierman). These two play off each other quite well, to wit in their “cuckoo” duet, in their Letter Scene, in the plotting of the trap for Falstaff in Windsor park, and so on. They both contributed lusty singing throughout: a lot of smiles for them all afternoon.
Frank Ford (taken by baritone Jack Anderson White) is a jealous husband as written, but he also adds much to the character in his baiting of Falstaff in the Garter Inn Scene. Mrs. Quickly (Noragh Devlin) is more clearly mercenary as staged here than often portrayed in the Verdi. Yet Devlin was also a sensitive sort to the rightness of the love between Anne and Fenton, regardless of the plans of the elder Pages. Devlin creates a pleasing character altogether, as does Paul Khoury as the Host of the Garter Inn. A good man too, he takes Fenton’s side, at one point encouraging the merry villagers to support the lovers in song. Vaughan Williams writes so well for a chorus, especially here.
Dr. Caius (Ernest Jackson) is the easily enraged French physician who seeks Anne’s hand through Mrs. Page. Jackson was correctly stubborn and mercurial in his temper. His servant Jack Rugby (Nathan Murphy) follows obediently.
Slender (Kim Feltkamp) is the simple lad who seeks Anne’s hand through Mr. Page. Feltkamp fawns at the thought of Anne, surrounded by his stressed out servant Peter Simple (Max Avery Vitagliano), Robert Shallow, a country justice (Christopher Trapani) and Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson (John Callison). Evans cuts a dandy character, compared to Trapani’s rough justice and Feltkamp’s simplicity.
The production was double cast and several of the chorus members served as covers for solo roles. Conspicuous in the small theater was how well the chorus moved together and how much they seemed to enjoy performing with each other.
Costume Designer Maureen Klein created relatively simple but believable wardrobes for the cast, some more special than others. Meganne George’s sets were also simple, yet evocative, particularly the dwelling exteriors and the Windsor Park scene, enhanced by G. Benjamin Swope’s lighting. As I say, it all added to a jolly day.
Finally to see Sir John in Love on stage, an opera I’ve known for decades only through recordings, was an opportunity not be passed up. When I say that I regret not seeing the other cast for the Bronx Opera’s Sir John in Love, I mean I wish I'd seen a second performance, in addition to this one, not instead of the cast I saw. I have to think the other cast was equally wonderful.
It was a pleasure to meet David Morrow, the Falstaff in the other cast, face to face in the lobby. OperaMetro interviewed him earlier this month along with Ben Bloomfield and again Director Ben Spierman: please see the post below this for the complete text...in fact, while you're on the matter, the post below the interview with the singers has an interview with Ben and his father Michael Spierman concerning the BxO’s 50th season…Wow, it’s been a great rush.
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