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Aspen Music Festival Review: Falstaff with Bryn Terfel, debut by violinist Diana Adamyan highlight festival weekend

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Comedy, it has been said, is harder to do than drama — which only underlines the achievement Friday night of the Aspen Music Festival’s one-night-only production of Verdi’s opera Falstaff. It was a hit.

Not only did the cast deliver the laughs as intended, they found a few of their own, thanks in large part to stage director Paula Suozzi. The executive stage director of the Metropolitan Opera got everyone timing their body language and facial expressions to juice the humor, and missed no opportunity to use a rearranged orchestra as extra stage props, to much hilarity.

As for the music, Verdi’s quicksilver score emerged with great energy and (mostly) precision, under conductor Patrick Summers, who heads the Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS program with Renée Fleming.



Having bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in the title role paid dividends in so many ways. The defining Falstaff of his generation commanded the stage with his every gesture and vocal delivery, and proved be a generous colleague to the all-student cast, each of whom was making their role debuts.

Whether he was berating his sidekicks Bardolfo and Pistola (most impressively in the showpiece aria “L’honore?! Ladri!”), responding to a flirtatious innkeeper (a silent role played with wicked charm by soprano Nina Mutalifu), parrying temptations with Mistress Quickly or failing yet again at wooing, Terfel’s Falstaff felt both bigger-than-life and utterly human at the same time.




At one point he picked the conductor’s pocket to demonstrate to his sidekicks how to do it without clumsiness. Summoning a page, usually played by a child actor, brought Jonathan Haas from behind his timpani, who hustled away with the messages, drumsticks still in hand. (This production also sneaked in some local references, as when Falstaff popped open cans of Aspen Brewing Co. This Year’s Blonde Ale to sip while reading The Aspen Times.)

At the start of Act 3 he tottered painfully down the audience steps stage right, wet and cold from being thrown into the River Thames. A few swigs of hot wine having brightened him up, one by one the musicians in the orchestra trilled and crescendoed to an explosive climax as he revived, a marvelous theatrical stroke, perfectly in tune with the music.

Standouts among the cast included baritone Michael J. Hawk as Ford, whose aria “É sogno? O realtà?” brought Act 2 scene 1 to an impressive climax, and Kresley Figueroa, whose creamy soprano floated all the money notes in Nannetta’s duets with Michael Butler in the role of Fenton, and she created the necessary magic summoning the fairies in the Act 3 aria “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio.”

The quartet of women, including soprano Katerina Burton as Alice and mezzo-sopranos Natalie Lewis as a sly Quickly and Deepa Johnny as a steady Meg Page, meshed beautifully in their scenes and ensembles, and created distinct characters both physically and vocally. Tenor Richard Pittsinger made a suitably prissy Dr. Caius, while tenor Joshua Berg and bass Joseph Hack rollicked deliciously as Bardolfo and Pistola.

The presence of the orchestra on stage was a double-edged sword. It put a spotlight on the delicious orchestral music and, as mentioned, provided chances for many comedy moments, but it also made it trickier to balance the sound with voices less forceful than Terfel’s.

Summers also favored faster-than-usual tempos and employed limited rubato (especially in Acts 1 and 2, which were run together). No doubt it made the singers’ breathing easier in Aspen’s thin air. The large complex ensembles in Act 2 managed to hold together, despite almost running off the rails several times. Everything worked in Act 3, however, a case study in how to make sense of Verdi’s big canvas. The final fugue was right on target.

Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert finished the weekend strong, introducing two more new faces, both winners.

Armenian violinist Diana Adamyan, barely in her 20s, delivered on all the aspects of the Khachaturian violin concerto, despite a steady rain that pattered on the tent roof through most of the piece. She found subtleties in the quieter, more hesitant moments, and revved up churning rhythms and dazzling climaxes. The sun was out when the piece ended, and one has to believe her playing had something to do with chasing away the rain.

French conductor Lionel Bringuier got the concerto churning with intensity, and managed to keep the big orchestra from overpowering the soloist. He kept the octane high in the second half, too, finding ideal moods for three Ravel classics. Alborada del gracioso veered from sultry rhythms in the opening to crashing climaxes, and Rapsodie espagnole danced deftly in its colorful tour of Spanish-infused music.

La valse hardly stopped for breath as it drove to a raucous finish. The piece is usually interpreted as portraying a carefree social class ignoring the rotting social structure around it until it collapses. Bringuier never let it seem carefree. His tempos pushed, yielding a hard edge from the beginning. If this was not the way we usually hear it, the effect was to suggest that the rot was always eating away.

Saturday evening in Harris Hall a fascinating game of musical chairs gave three pianists a chance at various roles in three Mozart concertos. “A Mozart evening with Arie Vardi” did not involve the Israeli pianist in playing a note. Instead he conducted an ad-hoc orchestra for the soloists — Australian Anwen Deng, Japanese-American Roy Ushikobo and Ukrainian Illia Ovcharenko — as they switched off between movements to get equal time.

Each played one movement of the Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, then paired off tag-team style for the Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat major. Each had an assigned piano for the Concerto for Three Pianos.

For my money Deng, 13, had the best touch for Mozart, creating fluid passages with ease, if not quite the authority of Ushikobo, 20 (who won the Aspen piano competition in 2016), and Ovcharenko, 22 (who won the Horowitz International competition in 2019). The men, however, seemed intent on turning Mozart’s graceful music into a competition of who could play louder. Both had formidable technique, and proved they could turn a sinuous phrase as they contributed to some of the best efforts in the triple concerto.

In essence, though, they were following Vardi’s lead. His conducting also favored robust, muscular playing from the orchestra.

NOT TO MISS IN COMING DAYS

The classical music world has been buzzing about Yunchan Lim, the 18-year-old from Korea who not only won this year’s Van Cliburn piano competition but drew comparisons to some of the greats of yesteryear. The Aspen Music festival had the foresight to save a recital date for the winner, hence Lim makes his Aspen debut Thursday in Harris Hall playing Brahms Ballades, a Mendelssohn Fantasia, a Skryabin sonata and Beethoven’s Eroica Variations. Another evening to behold will be Saturday’s reunion in Harris Hall of incomparably versatile bassist Edgar Meyer, banjo boss Béla Fleck and mandolin maestro Mike Marshall, top-of-the-mountain musicians all.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 29 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.


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