Verdi's "Falstaff" is one of the greatest of all operas, it's one of the few without a single superfluous note, and there isn't a moment that calls for conventional vocal display. It is also an opera that cannot succeed without an exceptionally fine cast and a superb conductor.
What a pleasure to report, therefore, that the Baltimore Opera Company's new production, which opened last Thursday at the Lyric Opera House, is a success on almost all counts.
Vocally and dramatically, this performance was dominated by the Falstaff of Sherrill Milnes. About 20 years ago, Milnes -- who was the finest American-born and -trained baritone of his generation -- began to have some highly publicized vocal problems. Whatever those problems were (or are), they were not evident during Thursday's performance. Milnes is now 62 years old, but he has plenty of voice left, and everything he did was filled with inner life and conviction. He was musical (he matched his timbre in "Ma salvagli l'addomine!" to the orchestra in the finale's mock exorcism), and he was genuinely funny.
As Alice Ford, Barbara Daniels was appropriately sly and seductive and revealed a voice that was just about perfect in weight and timbre for the role. She was well-partnered by Diedra Palmour (as Meg Page) and by Sujung Kim, who sang prettily, charmingly and accurately as Alice's daughter, Nanetta.
Like Kim, Gran Wilson, who sang Fenton to her Nanetta, has a small, delicate voice. He used it musically and passionately in his scenes with her, but there were one or two moments in his Act III aria in which his singing threatened to buckle under pressure.
The Ford of Roy Stevens was musically and dramatically excellent. He was able to suggest the sinister underside of Ford without alienating the audience. His Act II monologue showed us a soul in torment. Nevertheless, Stevens seemed to be having a little vocal trouble -- a cold, perhaps? -- because his voice seemed to go in and out of focus.
In supporting roles, the Caius of John Daniecki, the Pistola of Franco Federici and the Bardolfo of Joel Sorensen were all excellent.
Exception must be taken, however, to the casting of Rosalind Elias as Mistress Quickly. Elias was once a superb mezzo-soprano (she was a lovely Meg in the 1963 Solti recording of the opera). But she is nearly 70, and there isn't much voice left. And Quickly must have a voice -- ideally, a large, baritonal-sounding contralto -- for, along with Falstaff, it is she who must anchor the opera's extraordinary fugal finale. It was frustrating to see Elias open her mouth and to hear nothing come out.
The conducting of Christian Badea played as big a role as the singing of Milnes in making this "Falstaff" a success. It was warm, affectionate, considerate of the singers' needs and -- perhaps most important of all -- brisk and precise enough to meet the demands of comedy.
What: Baltimore Opera Company's production of Verdi's "Falstaff," featuring Sherrill Milnes and Barbara Daniels
When: Tonight at 8: 15; tomorrow at 3 p.m.; Wednesday at 7: 30 p.m.; Friday at 8: 15 p.m.; Oct. 26 at 3 p.m.
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
Pub Date: 10/18/97