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Turning an Appetizer Into a Meal: The Quad City Symphony, December 1 at the Adler Theatre PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Wednesday, 12 December 2012 09:19

It should have been only a sampling – a taste of love, lust, delusions of grandeur, and jocular deception – but the Quad City Symphony on December 1 delivered a fast-paced, funny, and fully satisfying performance of Act III of Guiseppe Verdi’s opera Falstaff.

Last season, the Quad City Symphony’s Der Rosenkavalier excerpt was plagued by balance problems between the singers and orchestra and by dramatic incoherence – with neither a translation of the German libretto nor an explanation of the plot.

This year, Music Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith got it right logistically, educationally, and musically. Smith moved the instrumentalists upstage, opening up a large area in front of the orchestra that put the principal singers closer to the audience. The cast members had more room to move and act, sharpening the differences between their characters.

Even though the 30-plus members of Jon Hurty’s Quad City Choral Arts sat behind the orchestra, far from the dramatic action, the location made their sound appropriately ethereal when they took on the roles of sprites, nymphs, spirits, and ghostly apparitions.

The changes of staging also improved the balance between the singers and the orchestra. From its upstage position, the orchestra was easily heard yet never overwhelmed the singers.

With nearly all production aspects visible to the audience, the complexity of communication between performers that tied the entire performance together was evident instead of hidden in an orchestra pit. At the hub of this process was Smith, making subtle adjustments of tempo and volume to accommodate the singers individually and collectively. The singers stayed in contact with Smith’s direction with quick glances and peripheral vision while remaining in character and interacting with the other performers. Smith also attended to the needs of the orchestra, shaping and controlling its phrasing with precise gestures indicating the tempo, the dynamics, and the character of the music and ultimately the opera itself.

Smith also successfully addressed the problems of language and dramatic context by providing an English translation of the Italian libretto with supertitles projected over the heads of the singers in real time, helping the audience understand both the drama and Verdi’s musical plays on words.

To familiarize the audience with the characters, Smith humorously introduced the costumed performers one by one with a brief explanation of their place in the plot. Once the entire company was on stage, he summarized the events of Acts I and II.

Falstaff, drawn from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, tells the story of John Falstaff – a lascivious, rotund old stag on an endless hunt for romantic conquests – and two clever women who get even by haunting and taunting him into public embarrassment.

Except for the Falstaff role, it’s more of an ensemble piece – with momentary glimpses into the range and dimension of individual voices – than the vocal Olympics that Verdi is famous for. In that respect, the students of the Minnesota Opera Theatre (under the guidance of David Walsh) were a perfect fit for this production. A mixture of seasoned and developing vocalists, the 10 cast singers produced an effective, clear, humorous presentation of the comic opera’s closing act.

Reyna Sawtell’s mezzo-soprano voice was a rich blend of contralto-like darkness and dramatic soprano edge that penetrated and filled the Adler. With her foot in a cast (unrelated to her character), her portrayal of Mistress Quickly was made hysterically funny when she used her crutch to beat a cowering Falstaff. Sara Lin Yoder captured the romantic ingénue Nannetta with her light spino soprano voice and maintained a compelling evenness and empathetic transparency throughout her vocal range.

The Quad City Symphony’s performance was nearly flawless throughout the contrasting music. The intensity of the playing and its control of style and volume revealed Smith’s careful guidance and sensitivity to both the specific needs of singers and opportunities for the orchestra to briefly stand in the musical spotlight. The musicians’ command of their music produced essential flexibility for the instantaneous adjustments needed in any staged performance.

While the Verdi was crisply and concisely performed, the first half of the concert struggled to find its own musical identity by comparison. Sparse expressive details and occasional ensemble instability made Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet feel more like incidental music, a warm-up to the Verdi, than distinctly different compositions in style, musical content, and purpose.

The orchestra’s unsteadiness at rhythmic transition points led to uncertainty in both works. Mendelssohn’s middle section was indistinct without melodic shaping and clear differentiation between thematic and accompanying parts. The dramatic tension and iconic theme of Tchaikovsky’s familiar work lacked the frenetic expression that is characteristic of his music. Missing was the high, almost frenzied level of intensity that in part provides the emotional resolution and satisfaction in Tchaikovsky’s score. There was no gut-wrenching, pathetic longing, romantic tension, or tear-jerking tragedy in the Romeo & Juliet. This music can certainly feel self-indulgent and overly melodramatic, but this performance was understated to such an extent that it bordered on homogeneous musical insipidity.

But the price for a brilliantly planned and executed Falstaff might have been less convincing performances of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. Rehearsal time is not infinite, and decisions must be made. Unifying his resources from the University of Minnesota, Quad City Choral Arts, and the Quad City Symphony, Smith created a clear, exciting, cohesive performance of Falstaff we could really sink our teeth into. In effect, it was the concert’s first half that turned out to be a sampling.

The next Quad City Symphony Masterworks concerts will be held February 9 and 10 and will feature the music of Weber, Bernstein, and Tchaikovsky and the vocal group Five by Design. For more information, visit QCSymphony.com.

Frederick Morden is a retired orchestra-music director, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, and writer who has served on the executive board of the Conductors Guild. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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