The Falstaff diet? A knight without armour

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By Roger Snodgrass

TESUQUE, N.M. – The Santa Fe Opera’s new production of “Falstaff” opened the season Friday night with all the camp and circumstance befitting Giusseppe Verdi’s comic masterpiece, based on Shakespeare’s shameless, big-bellied rascal.

The Falstaff of the two-part “Henry IV,” called back for his own show in the “Merry Wives of Windsor, “has the patent on the role of the most deplorably loveable, gluttonous reprobate of all time.

The SFO’s choice of “Falstaff,” first performed in 1893 at La Scala in Milan, bows to the demand of its festival format that relies on the tried and true to balance a few daring departures into the new and the not seen for awhile.

This year’s production of “Falstaff” has much of that going for it, as a new version of a highly popular opera that also hasn’t been done here since 2001.

The 2008 version has only one problem worth mentioning and getting out of the way immediately if possible, which is to say that Falstaff is not fat enough. Even with a fat suit and fat make-up with a fat nose and his excellent imitation of wide-body behavior, Laurent Naouri is too skinny. What a voice the French baritone has, but his fat suit needs a fat suit.

That said (and we are in the midst of a diabetes epidemic here) what’s not to like about the slimmer Falstaff concept.

Nobody gets killed. There are jokes and gags and twists and spectacles. The music conducted by the Italian Paolo Arrivabeni is subtle and graceful and full of gorgeous surprises, especially the soaring love songs of Nanetta (Laura Giordanno) and Fenton (Norman Reinhardt). Giordanno, in particular, steals a few scenes.

The final piece around a fabulous old oak in Windsor Forest epitomizes the directorial skills of Kevin Newberry. He brings the whole world, which seems like a cast of thousands, together in harmony with nature.

The story has a fine moral, which is, if you’re going to make an ass out of yourself and make life interesting for all the fuddie-duddies, then you’ll have to risk a few lumps for your selfish behavior and maybe have those people to dinner as an apologetic gesture.

To enjoy this opera, one first has to remember that those simple-minded medieval people without benefit of the Internet had one main joke and it was about horns. The funny thing was that the husband whose wife was unfaithful was said to be given symbolic “horns” by the seducer.

Get it, horns – like wow, a cow; like a goat. Oh no! Horns like a deer!

Well, it’s not that funny any more, but like opera it’s one of those fundamental parts of our culture and civilization that stubbornly survives and maybe we owe it to our better selves, if we have any, from time to time to try to understand why.

The Santa Fe Opera is a perennial world-class, five-star experience, located right down the road.

“Falstaff” will be performed nine more times this season: July 2, July 5, 11, 29, August 4, 11, 16, 19, 23. Beginning July 29, Anthony Michaels Moore will assume the title role. The opera begins at 9 p.m. through July 26, 8:30 p.m. July 28-Aug. 17, and 8 p.m. Aug. 18-Aug 23.

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