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Verdi, Shakespeare and the #MeToo era

West Bay Opera stages the Bard-based comedy -- and Verdi's 'ultimate masterpiece' -- 'Falstaff'

So, why did West Bay Opera General Director José Luis Moscovich choose Giuseppe Verdi's "Falstaff" to close the venerable company's 63rd season?

"I guess for the same reason people like to climb Mount Everest," he said during a recent phone conversation. "I try not to program or conduct anything I don't love. I love this piece. It's a musician's opera; the ultimate masterpiece; a distillation of six decades of Verdi's genius in one masterpiece. And unlike almost everything else he did, it's a comedy."

Verdi was in his late 70s when he began work on "Falstaff," which was to be his last opera. He'd been wanting for decades to write a comedy. His second opera, "Un Giorno di Regno," which premiered in 1840, was not well received. But after writing another 25 operas, and not writing for a while, he took on this last comedic effort.

"In coming back to composing (after) years of not doing anything after 'Otello,' he actually went much beyond what he had done in other works," Moscovich said. "We can only imagine what he might have done if he'd done another. There is a freedom, a forward-looking approach in this piece, that truly presages what came after him. It is truly a bundle of fun, but also a very important piece in the evolution of opera."

"Falstaff" premiered in 1893 at La Scala in Milan. Verdi died in 1901.

Moscovich likened "Falstaff" to a collaboration between two geniuses, Verdi and William Shakespeare, who 300 years earlier had written the plays on which Arrigo Boito based his libretto: scenes from "Henry IV, parts 1 and 2," and "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

In the opera, the titular "fat knight" tries to seduce two married women, in an effort to abscond with their husbands' fortunes.

"I programmed 'Falstaff' because it is more relevant than ever. An older man tries to take advantage of younger women who are married to rich men. In the era of #MeToo, it is interesting to observe that Shakespeare nailed this topic back in the 1600s, and that the Bard's collaboration with Verdi produced an even classier result than the original play," Moscovich explained in an email. "This is a score that is nothing short of dazzling. It is a whole lifetime of craft, experience and genius poured into a composition that is quintessentially for the stage. The pace and dynamism of the dialogue and the effectiveness of the music in propelling the action forward are a remarkable achievement."

West Bay Opera has built a reputation under Moscovich's leadership for excellent productions, with good casts, stunning scenic design, and -- quite often -- orchestras so large they must be split between the pit and the stage.

"Our Falstaff, baritone Richard Zeller, has sung the role numerous times and is one of the major Falstaff interpreters today in the country," Moscovich said. "He has a number of credits at the Met, as well as the Chicago Lyric, the Hamburg Opera and other major houses in the U.S. and Europe."

The cast also includes Taylor Haines as Alice, baritone Krassen Karagiozov as Ford, Anastasia Malliaras as Nannetta; mezzo Veronica Jensen as Meg; contralto Patrice Houston as Quickly; tenors Dane Suarez as Fenton, Michael Orlinsky as Bardolfo and Michael Mendelsohn as Gaius; and baritone Kiril Havezov as Pistola.

Moscovich brought in frequent collaborator Ragnar Conde as stage director, a partnership that has worked very well over the years. Conde runs the Escenia Ensamble in Mexico.

"It is a piece about women showing the degree to which they are in charge of their own lives and relationship with men in their lives," Moscovich said. "They are not depicted as victims, not as people who need to rise up and take revenge. They have a sense of humor to put this man in his place for his excesses and lack of respect for women. Yet, none of that is black and white. Verdi finds a way to depict Falstaff in a very human way. He's a guy who is very flawed, but not a monster."

Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at johnorr@regardingarts.com.

What: "Falstaff."

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

When: May 24, 26; June 1, 2. The May 26 staging will include a post-performance discussion with the cast and directors on stage.

Cost: $35 to $85 (discounts available).

Info: West Bay Opera.

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