The cast of the UT opera theatre production of Plump Jack performs admirably, but the score and direction make the glorious rogue Falstaff just a drunken fat crook
Reviewed by Iris Brooks, Fri., April 27, 2007
McCullough Theatre, through April 29
Falstaff is hardly unknown to the world of opera. Aside from Verdi's comic masterpiece Falstaff, the beloved rogue is also the subject of no fewer than five different operas. Most take their storyline from Shakespeare's domestic farce The Merry Wives of Windsor, but this recent entry, composed by Gordon Getty in 1984, is similar in structure and approach to the Orson Welles film Chimes at Midnight, drawing from the history plays Henry IV, Parts I and II and Henry V. The focus is on Falstaff's relationship with the young Prince Hal, soon to be Henry V, and his subsequent rejection by the monarch once Hal has turned from his idle youth and accepted the responsibilities of rule. The preponderance of works bearing his name gives testament of the extent to which Falstaff has long been an audience favorite. The boozing, wenching, gluttonous knight, given to shameless fabrication while remaining disarmingly forthright about himself and his vice-ridden nature, ambles through the plays, a welcome human counterfoil to the serious business of politics and war.
Gordon Getty, a scion of the Getty fortune and the single biggest patron of classical-music organizations in the country, has described himself as a contemporary composer working in a 19th century idiom. He makes no claims to any kind of intellectualism and desires to "touch the heart" with the same directness as a film score. At first glance, this is not an altogether misguided way of approaching an opera based on a work of Shakespeare. Both opera and the plays of Shakespeare have suffered the same fate in contemporary culture: becoming rarefied out of their original context and relegated to the hallowed summits of high art. Both were originally far more populist forms, seen and appreciated by a wide audience. A desire to address that, to create an opera with the same musical accessibility for a modern audience as a film score, is an interesting notion. Through the majority of the first act, it is possible to follow Getty in this regard. The opera is structured as a music drama in the style of Wagner, a kind of ongoing recitativo without the traditional aria structure. However, the disadvantages of this style soon weigh heavily on an audience deprived of the narrative break and the emotional release of the aria. For 2 hours, the music and the words forge ahead like trains on separate tracks. They bear so little connection, their relationship is so mutually unilluminating, that it is necessary to rely on the supertitles to understand what's going on, despite the opera being sung in English. Moreover, Getty's score is so leaden and his orchestration so uninspired, it is extremely difficult to regard Falstaff with the benevolent indulgence so essential to his appeal. Without that affinity, the story falls apart by the second act.
The UT opera theatre program is obviously rife with talent. The singing and music are admirably performed. Phillip Hill has a wonderful voice, large and rich, and he does his best in the lead role despite being costumed in a wiry fake beard and bald pate that, with his fake belly, make him look like a Shylock who's swallowed a beach ball. John McGuire seems oddly cast as Prince Hal, but he sings well, and Yoon Sang Lee gives a lovely performance as Henry IV, full of appropriate gravitas. Many of the cast members possess sure, strong voices, but they appear woefully misdirected by Octavio Cardenas, encouraged in all kinds of comic business that, set to the humorless score, fall rather flat.
Overall, the greatest disservice to the talented cast is committed by the production designers. The decision to transplant the action to present-day London renders the action of the play almost totally incomprehensible in one fell swoop. The character of Sir John is dependant on an environment wherein a nobleman's vices are considered benign by their very nature. Sir John and the Prince of Wales can hang about with fools and wastrels; to have them consorting with violent, anti-authoritarian punks and mugging tourists makes them appear malevolent and very difficult to sympathize with. Unfortunately, without our sympathy, glorious Falstaff is just a drunken fat man who steals from people.