Sir John in Love at Bronx Opera

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.

Barbee Monk sings Anne Page in  Sir John in Love

Barbee Monk sings Anne Page in Sir John in Love

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.

Mary-Hollis Hundley is Meg Page

Mary-Hollis Hundley is Meg Page

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.

Hannah Spierman is Alice Ford

Hannah Spierman is Alice Ford

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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JRS

Sir John in Love at Bronx Opera

Headlining their 50th anniversary season, the Bronx Opera stages Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love, this for the third time in the company’s history. OperaMetro (OM) chatted with Benjamin Spierman (BS), the Director of this first production of the season, later joined by bass baritones Ben Bloomfield (BB) and David Morrow (DM), who alternate in the run as Sir John Falstaff. The Bronx Opera presents Sir John in Love on the weekends of January 14/15 and 21/22. The following is a reasonably accurate transcript of our conversations, which actually occurred on separate occasions. First, our Director:

OM: Ben Spireman, thank you for talking with me again.

BS: My pleasure.

Ben Spierman, director of Bronx Opera's  Sir John in Love

Ben Spierman, director of Bronx Opera's Sir John in Love

OM: We’re very much looking forward to Sir John in Love. Hinted at in our first conversation is that the Bronx Opera has almost a family relationship with the operas of Ralph Vaughan Williams. How did this relationship evolve?

BS: One of the first British operas the Company performed was Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, which got my father to look into other opera composers from the UK. At the same time we were working with Eugene Green, a bass baritone, wonderful artist, he often sang with the Met on tour, did lots of regional opera, and so on. He became a real fixture around here, part of the family, so to speak. My father knew of Vaughan Williams’ music, the well-known symphonies of course, especially the Sea Symphony, but also the Serenade to Music, the songs and the hymns. He decided to do Sir John in Love in our ’77-’78 season. Eugene was our first Falstaff, and also our second in 1988. In between we staged Hugh the Drover in 1982, again in 1997, and then just recently The Poisoned Kiss.

OM: Your father [Michael Spierman] is conducting Sir John in Love this season, as in the past.

BS: That’s correct. He very much loves this score.

OM: For the Bronx Opera 50th anniversary post here (which resides just below this one!) you provided OperaMetro with a photo of him and Ursula Vaughan Williams, the composer’s widow.

BS: Yes, as the relationship between the Company and the operas of Vaughan Williams deepened, my father sought an interview with her. She was a truly remarkable person, very much alive, loquacious, erudite, insightful, very open. Ursula wrote poetry, added a scene in the revision of Hugh the Drover, contributed several rewrites and edits of The Poisoned Kiss. She talked of Vaughan Williams’ experiences during the Second World War and the end of his life. It was very exciting for my father to make the personal connection.

OM: Now that you mention it, I’ve seen her name as an author of the program notes for several RVW EMI CDs.

BS: She was very much involved with his creative life as well as being his wife.

OM: It sounds like a very special relationship. So tell me, what’s special about Sir John in Love?

BS: Well it’s very ENGLISH. After all, the English are very protective of their Shakespeare…

OM: As are the Germans with their Goethe…

BS: Right. Vaughan Williams took more material, plot, text, etc. straight from the actual play, but also from other sources by Shakespeare and from elsewhere as well, all in English of course.

OM: Vaughan Williams includes more of the play’s characters.

BS: Right, there are eighteen roles in Sir John. Only four are female.

OM: Many of these folks are singing together in various combinations for brief scenes, quickly on stage, then off again, sometimes two small groups singing aside one another. From a director’s standpoint, it must be a bear to stage.

BS: It’s very difficult, in fact from the sixty or so operas I’ve tackled, Sir John is not THE most complex, but certainly up there in the top five on a scale of complexity. It easily deceives one: the tonality, the meter, the texture, and the orchestration don’t scream ‘modern music’ at you, not like some other compositions from that era, but the characterizations are subtle. Yes, there are many people popping in and out, most of the scenes are not very long, some only 20 seconds or so and the several plot lines are advanced in bits and pieces. The challenge for a director is to keep all aspects clearly portrayed, certainly highlight the important moments, but at the same time give every character his or her due. Plus the text is mostly from the Shakespeare, i.e., not exactly every day English.

Benjamin Bloomfield to sing Falstaff on January 14 and 22

Benjamin Bloomfield to sing Falstaff on January 14 and 22

OM: Let’s talk about Sir John Falstaff. Gentlemen, shall we? Is this the first time you’re performing Sir John in the Vaughan Williams on stage, and for this production in which performances are you singing?

BB: Yes, it’s my first time for Sir John, I’m opening on Saturday evening, January 14, then the matinee on Sunday, January 22.

DM: Yes, also my first time for Sir John, I’m singing the Sunday matinee, January 15 and then the evening of Saturday, January 21.

OM: There are a few other prominent Falstaffs in opera, as you know. Have either of you had experience with these and, if so, how do they differ from the John Falstaff we find in Vaughan Williams?

DM: I’ve sung John Falstaff in Antonio Salieri’s Falstaff. It’s a respectable work, actually, not Mozart of course, few things are, but it’s respectable. The production was updated to the 1980s, so it was a lot of fun to do. Falstaff in the Salieri comes more directly from Italian opera buffa, at that time Paisiello or Cimarosa, which in turn came from the Italian Commedia tradition. Falstaff is sort of a braggart, loud and self-centered like Pantalone and Capitano…a mix of these types.

David Morrow to sing Falstaff on January 15 and 21

David Morrow to sing Falstaff on January 15 and 21

OM: Antonio Salieri’s Falstaff is from 1799. I know of at least one CD recording, but then there’s a respectable staging of the opera at the Schwetzinger Festspiele in 1995, released on an ArtHaus Musik DVD. John Del Carlo is Falstaff. Then there’s Otto Nicolai’s Die lüstigen Weiber von Windsor is from 1849 and, of course, Verdi’s Falstaff from 1893...Ben Bloomfield?

BB: I have only a passing acquaintance with Nicolai’s opera, but I’ve performed Verdi’s Falstaff in concert before and I’ll be doing the role in Pittsburgh this spring in a staged production.

OM: Just quickly to add another reference: Nicolai’s Falstaff in Die lüstigen Weiber von Windsor comes from the tradition of Mozart’s Osmin, Beethoven’s Rocco, Lortzing’s Van Bett, even Wagner’s Daland. It’s a lovely opera, I remember the New York City Opera staged it in 1980. There are a couple of complete recordings on major label CDs, and actually a film in English from, I want to say, the early 1960s.  Norman Foster is the Falstaff, but the film also has Colette Boky, Mildred Miller, and the young and lovely Lucia Popp. Didn’t mean to cut you off Ben. About Verdi’s Falstaff?

BS: Let me say quickly here: Bronx Opera is performing Verdi’s Falstaff in April and May of this season. It’s one of my very favorite operas.

OM: And one of mine. Agreed? (all nod in agreement)

BB: I feel that Verdi’s Falstaff is more focused on his own nobility, whereas Falstaff in Sir John in Love is more unrestrained, and also more of a romantic.

DM: For me Verdi’s Falstaff is the fulfillment of a marvelous creative journey, a life long achievement, but at the same time I think it has the halo of great melancholy. Maybe that all of the bluster Falstaff exhibits comes from compensation for a fear of abandonment, loneliness.

OM: The grand finale of the Verdi, exquisite as it is, can be taken in different ways. Some days it’s not quite existentially satisfying to think that the only criterion for evaluating a good life is whether or not one gets the last laugh.

DM: But Vaughan Williams takes the end of Sir John in a lighter vein: Okay, that’s the way things are today, tomorrow is another day. Maybe Falstaff has learned his lesson, but maybe not. Let’s make up and have a big party. I mean, probably he won’t change: Falstaff, to his credit, wants to experience everything to the Nth degree. He’s the ultimate hedonist, unrestrained in his eating, drinking, his women, he enjoys the pleasures of the flesh. He’s not a stupid man, but he clearly likes to use his intelligence to delve into these pastimes. He likes to be liked, and people like to be around Falstaff because he enjoys plotting ways to have fun and at the same time support himself.

BB: Exactly. No pun intended, he’s larger than life! Certainly noble and romantic, but I feel others seem to regard him as what today we would call a reality show character. Some feed off of him, enjoy his company, but no one really wants to know him. It is interesting, too, that the music for when Falstaff reflects on himself is different from the music for when others are talking about him. He interacts with Ford in a certain way, with the women in another way, and also with his flunkies in different ways. Certainly a lot of it depends on where he places himself in the social hierarchy in relation to the others and also what he wants from each. He is after all SIR John Falstaff, and therefore perceives himself to be a higher rank. No wonder he orders his flunkies around and feels that he may have his way with the woman above the everyday morality.

OM: Is he delusional?

BB: Certainly lives on his own planet! I think he believes that others perceive him as he perceives himself, but he doesn’t really know (or care) what other people think. He communicates with others to the extent that they play into his own delusions.

OM: Can you isolate a special moment in the opera, a moment in which Falstaff sort of steps back and reveals himself to the audience, a moment when you the singer more or less feel the spotlight as opposed to share it?

DM: In the second act, second scene: Bardolph has delivered the bottle of sack to him and Mrs. Quickly has just confirmed the appointment with Mrs. Ford “between ten and eleven.” Falstaff tells us who he is, he writes a love song, he’s on top of the world. As a singer it’s really gratifying to have such wonderful music to sing.

OM: Go thy ways, go thy ways, old Jack!

BB: Definitely that soliloquy! It’s marvelous. But I’d add also the Greensleves duet with Alice Ford and the rest of the final scene of Act IV in Windsor Park. Just magical, the music is simply magical.

OM: Advice for those in the audience who more than likely have never seen Sir John in Love before?

BB: Pretty much sit back and let it wash over you. Read the libretto first, know the characters, find a recording if you can. Read Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor if you have the time!

OM: Good advice. The Vaughan Williams is closest to the original! There are, to my knowledge, two complete CD recordings of Sir John in Love, one on EMI with Raimund Herincx as Sir John, Wendy Eathome as Anne Page, Felicity Palmer as Mrs. Page, Elizabeth Bainbridge as Mrs. Ford, Robert Tear as Fenton, John Noble as Page and Robert Lloyd as Ford, Helen Watts as Mrs. Quickly, conducted by Meredith Davies (1975); the other is on Chandos with Donald Maxwell as Sir John, Susan Gritton as Anne Page, Laura Claycomb as Mrs. Page, Sarah Connolly as Mrs. Ford, Mark Padmore as Fenton, Roderick Williams as Page and Matthew Best as Ford, Anne-Marie Owens as Mrs. Quickly, conducted by Richard Hickox (2007). Both are excellent recordings.

I’m very much looking forward to this! Thank you, gentlemen, for your comments.

BS: Thank you!

BB: Thank you!

DM: Thank you!

The Bronx Opera performs Sir John in Love by Ralph Vaughan Williams on Saturday, January 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, January 15 at 2:30 p.m. at the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College in the Bronx; Sir John in Love is performed again the following weekend at Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in Manhattan, 7:30 p.m. on January 21 and 2:30 p.m on the 22nd. For tickets, casting, directions, etc. please visit the company’s website at www.bronxopera.org.

In last week in April and first week in May, the Bronx Opera will tackle Verdi’s Falstaff.

Support local opera: it's the future.

JRS.