‘Falstaff’ is a big bundle of laughs

May 22, 2005; Los Angeles, CA, USA; 'Falstaff' Rehearsal 2 - May 22, 2005Los Angeles OperaMandatory Credit: Photo by Robert Millard(©) Copyright 2005 Robert Millard818-247-4700www.MillardPhotos.com

Verdi completed “Falstaff” when he was 80 years old and had determined to give up the opera business. But when his great librettist, Arrigo Boito, handed him his version of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” he could not resist the challenge to write a comedy. He turned out a masterpiece.

The production of “Falstaff” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stars the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel who turns in a luscious performance. The singer must wear stuffing under his clothes, get pitched into a laundry basket and then wear deer’s antlers on his head. But like the character he is playing, Terfel handles it all with good nature and grace. He is truly a great Falstaff.

He is aided by a fine production, an excellent cast and the marvelous conducting of Kent Nagano who, alas, will be leaving next year to take on two new assignments. Nagano gives the fast flowing score, which has no pause for applause, a splendid reading.

The sets devised by Hayden Griffin recall the days of merry old England and work extremely well in terms of the riotous plot.

When Sir John Falstaff sends love letters to two wives, Alice Ford and Meg Page, they compare notes and resolve to teach the pompous knight a lesson. The interior of the Fords’ Windsor home is wonderfully serviceable during the scene where the jealous husband and his retinue search everywhere for the would-be lover.

The two wives are sung charmingly by Kallen Esperian as Alice Ford and Milena Kitic as Meg Page. Both are outstanding sopranos. Vassily Gerello, a Ukrainian baritone, was superb as the jealous husband and conveyed his anguish with pathos.

All the others were wonderful in their respective roles. Jane Henschel was Mistress Quickley, the go-between, and Celena Shafer and Daniil Shtoda played the young lovers. Terfel’s henchmen were Greg Fedderly, unrecognizable as Bardolph, and Dean Peterson, menacing as Pistol. David Cangelosi as Dr. Caius was also excellent.

All’s well that ends well under the direction of the reliable Stephen Lawless. Shakespeare would have been proud.