There was a time when Verdi’s “Falstaff” was fashionably unpopular with the public because the work is through composed and there are no arias or “hit tunes” that can be easily excerpted. The orchestra is a full interactive partner with the singing, rather than the “oom?pah?pah” accompaniment style of many of Verdi’s most popular earlier works and thus “real” Verdi lovers often loathed it. Musicians and singers, on the other hand, found the work endlessly fascinating, always finding new things in it. Indeed, it is by far the most musically interesting of Verdi’s operas, and also his most difficult and challenging in terms of ensembling. If one thing goes wrong in “Falstaff,” there is chaos since there are no traditional starts and stops: it is both a director’s and conductor’s nightmare to hold together. Add to the mix that Lyric Opera was unable to persuade Welch bass-baritone superstar Bryn Terfel to reprise the title role (this 1999-2000 season-opening production was conceived for Terfel), that it had engaged Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri to do so but that Maestri canceled due to a “family emergency,” leaving British baritone Andrew Shore to fill in while further cancellations came from Italian mezzo-soprano Bernadette Manca di Nissa as Dame Quickly—replaced by Ryan Center contralto Meredith Arwady—and Swedish baritone Peter Mattei as Ford, replaced by Israeli baritone Boaz Daniel. With such a plethora of vocal casualties for such a complex work, this production managed to rise above the mediocrity that would be expected. One clear reason is conductor Sir Andrew Davis, who kept a steady hand throughout, cueing singers with expert precision, even if some of the tempos early on lagged a bit as a result. Verdi has never been Davis’ strong point, and if he lacked achieving the Italalianate sound that his departing predecessor Bruno Bartoletti could get from the Lyric Opera Orchestra, Davis compensated with precision and timing. The best thing about this “Falstaff” is how much of an ensemble is achieved amongst an unmatched group of singers. New chorus master Donald Nally, who made the party scenes in “traviata” and “boheme” this season sound so wimpy and uninvolved, does a spectacular job here of allowing the chorus to sound virtually transparent in the thrilling finale, that breakneck fugue that declares the Bard’s memorable message that “All the world’s a joke.” (Dennis Polkow)
At the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, (312)332-2244. This production is now closed.