There’s a moment in the “classic” 1989 movie “Fletch Lives” when Chevy Chase as Fletch says it takes a big man to admit when he is wrong. To which he adds, “I am NOT a big man.” It takes the comedic instincts and delivery of Chase to get laughs from that line, and it takes baritone Robert Mellon as the title character in Union Avenue Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” to elicit that reaction for 2 ½ hours of witty, plus-sized, boozy merriment.
Mellon has big shoes to fill as Falstaff, a beloved barfly who appears in four plays by William Shakespeare (if you count the one in which he is eulogized). Plumped up in a hunchbacked fat suit, Mellon fills his Falstaff as a big man (literally) who gets big laughs while working his wiles with the merry wives of Windsor and their various and sundry significant others. As one of the “holy trinity” of comic operas, “Falstaff” may reside with the likes of “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Master-Singers of Nuremberg,” but it’s Mellon and the rest of the cast who make this production flat-out fun.
This may be Falstaff’s show, but he, like Mellon, needs comedic foils who provide equal helpings of wit and charm, and this production has them. “Falstaff” is a concentrated opera without long arias, but with melodies that practically fly by. That’s well-suited to the talents of Marc Schapman and Mark Freiman as Falstaff’s scheming henchmen, Bardolfo and Pistola, respectively, who bounce off each other amusingly. As does Anthony Heinemann as Dr. Caius and Jacob Lassetter as Ford.
Also up to Falstaff’s formidable foibles is the trifecta of Karen Kanakis, who sings Mrs. Alice Ford, Melody Wilson as Mrs. Meg Page and Janara Kellerman as Dame Mistress Quickly. This triumvirate were delightful – individually and collectively – as they work to counter Falstaff’s schemes with a refreshing equality of the sexes. A subplot involves the young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, and their best scene concludes Act I. As sung by soprano Brooklyn Snow and tenor Jesse Darden, it’s one of the opera’s best moments.
Under the baton of conductor Stephen Hargreaves, the music of Verdi’s final opera and only second comedy is frothy, splendid and connects deeply with the performers. Teresa Doggett’s costumes were not only tailored for the overall period of the opera, they also elevated the visual presence of each character.
The stage at Union Avenue Christian Church poses certain creative challenges, but its modest size is well-suited to this opera. Scenic designer Lex Van Blommestein makes maximum use of the stage by going “old school” and using cloth panels to set the scenes, including Falstaff’s favorite haunt, the Garter Inn. Under the direction of stage manager Megan-Marie Cahill, the crew openly raise and lower the panels, replete with squeaky pulleys. As the crew elevated the panels for the final act (during the July 30th performance), set in a forest, they created the impressive spread of a massive oak tree. It’s not often that a scene change elicits ooo’s, ahh’s and applause.
So, loosen your belt – or sash or waistline – and prepare to be served an effervescent treat ala Verdi, Shakespeare and Union Avenue Opera.
Union Avenue Opera Union presents “Falstaff” July 29 and 30 and August 5, 6 at 8 p.m. at Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information, visit www.unionavenueopera.org
CB Adams is an award-winning fiction writer and photographer based in the Greater St. Louis area. A former music/arts editor and feature writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, his non-fiction has been published in local, regional and national publications. His literary short stories have been published in more than a dozen literary journals and his fine art photography has been exhibited in more than 40 galley shows nationwide. Adams is the recipient of the Missouri Arts Council’s highest writing awards: the Writers’ Biennial and Missouri Writing!. The Riverfront Times named him, “St. Louis’ Most Under-Appreciated Writer” in 1996.
This July, Union Avenue Opera (UAO) will make its return to presenting live, in-person opera following a summer of cancellations due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. For the 2021Season, UAO will move its performances to The Big Top, in St Louis’ Grand Center district, for three exciting, socially distanced performances of both Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann and Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia.
“I am beyond thrilled that we have found a way to safely bring opera back to the city of St. Louis this summer. It is an incredible opportunity for us to be creative and offer audiences something different for this one unique season,” said UAO founding Artistic Director and conductor Scott Schoonover.
This summer, audiences will have the opportunity to see two classic, beloved operas in one week – even on the same day, as UAO will offer two matinee performances for the first time in eight years.
“The operas will unfold, acted in front of our wonderful orchestra on The Big Top stage with costumes and lights, to delight socially distanced crowds in the large open-air tent. I can’t wait to see our patrons again and hope that new audience members will come out as well, in support of this effort to put St. Louis artists, orchestra members and technicians back to work after this difficult year,” said Schoonover.
Operated by the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, The Big Top is Missouri ArtSafe Certified and will employ rigorous COVID-19 mitigation policies for the benefit of all guests, staff, and artists in its 1,200-person tent which will have reduced capacity for 2021. The Big Top will also employ a contact-less ticketing and concession experience for opera goers and masks will be required.
“I know those who attend will be moved in a special way by hearing live singing and orchestra again, and by seeing wonderful portrayals of these complex and sometimes hilarious characters in person. It certainly gives us all something which we can look forward to in the upcoming months. Finally, I would like to assure our loyal supporters that UAO fully intends to be back in its home venue next season with a full, 3-opera lineup.”
Single tickets range from $25 to $55 and will be available exclusively through MetroTix beginning June 1, for members of the public. All tickets must be purchased in advance either online at www.metrotix.com or by calling 314-534-1111 or 800-293-5949. UAO will utilize tiered on-sale dates for past subscribers and donors prior to the public on-sale date – more information regarding tiered ticket on-sale dates can be found online at www.unionavenueopera.org.
Offenbach’s: LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN Three Performances: July 21 and 24 at 7:30PM and July 23 at 2:00PM Presented in French with projected English supertitles Conducted by Scott Schoonover Staging by Mark Freiman
Offenbach’s grand French opera follows the poet Hoffmann as he searches for true love in a magical tale of thwarted love, art, and revenge! Best known for the Barcarolle “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour,” “Chanson de Kleinzach,” and the ultimate showcase of coloratura soprano singing, Olympia’s “Doll aria.” Les contes d’Hoffmann is a haunting tale of one man’s desire for the perfect woman. Hounded by his other-worldly nemesis and accompanied by Nicklausse, his ever-faithful friend, Hoffmann seems forever unlucky in love. Darkly playful and set against fantastical backdrops and stirring chorus formations, the opera renders the story of Hoffmann’s descent into madness and intoxication in faithful detail
Under the baton of Artistic Director Scott Schoonover, lyric tenor William Davenport will make his UAO debut in the title role. Soprano Brooklyn Snow, who received high praise for her portrayal of Cunegonde in 2019’s Candide returns to sing the three heroines as Jeremiah Sanders makes his UAO debut as the opera’s four villains. Anthony Webb (Enoch Snow, Carousel) returns to sing the roles of the four servants and Emma Sorenson (Hänsel, Hänsel und Gretel) as Hoffmann’s faithful companion, Nicklausse.
Hoffmann – William Davenport* Lindorf / Coppélius / Dappertutto / Dr. Miracle – Jeremiah Sanders* Andrès / Spalanzani / Pittichinaccio / Frantz – Anthony Webb Olympia / Giulietta / Antonia – Brooklyn Snow Nicklausse – Emma Sorenson Luther / Crespel – Joel Rogier Hermann / Schlemil – Randell McGee Nathanael / Cochenille – Anthony Heinemann Voice of Antonia’s Mother – Liya Khaimova
Rossini’s: IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA Three Performances: July 22 and 23 at 7:30PM and July 24 at 2:00PM Presented in Italian with projected English supertitles Conducted by Stephen Hargreaves Staged by Jon Truitt
Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! Only the clever barber Figaro can help the fair Rosina outwit her guardian, the aging Dr. Bartolo and live out her days in the arms of her true love, Count Almaviva. A grand plan is hatched, full of mischievous escapades and inventive antics sure to delight audiences of all ages. This Rossini Italian classic features one of the most well-known pieces of music in history, Figaro’s “Largo al factotum” along with Rosina’s dazzling “Una voce poco fa.” Full of laughter and beautiful music, see why Il barbiere di Siviglia has been an audience favorite for more than two centuries.
No stranger to his role, Pedro Barbosa will make his UAO debut as Conte d’ Almaviva as Robert Mellon makes his UAO and role debut as the barber Figaro, and Janara Kellerman (Mrs. Herring, Albert Herring) makes her role debut as Rosina. Also returning are Andy Papas (Ko-Ko, H.M.S. Pinafore) as Dr. Bartolo, Erin Haupt (Hebe, H.M.S. Pinafore) as Berta, Isaiah Musik-Ayala (Colline, La bohème) as Basilio, as Stephen Hargreaves (Nabucco) conducts.
Conte d’ Almaviva – Pedro Barbosa* Figaro – Robert Mellon* Rosina – Janara Kellerman Dr. Bartolo – Andy Papas Basilio – Isaiah Musik-Ayala Berta – Erin Haupt Fiorello – Ben Worley
In anticipation of its season, UAO will bring classic opera front and center in its 2021 Opera in the Garden – Garden Concert Series this spring featuring thrilling operatic performances. Launched in 2018, as a House Concert Series, UAO moved the concerts outdoor last fall for the safety of its artists and patrons and were some of the first, live, operatic performances held in St. Louis during the pandemic.
Sunday, May 16 at 6:00PM Our series starts in the Ladue garden of Margaret Gilleo and Charles Guenther with performances by UAO artists Leann Schuering, Anthony Heinemann, and Randell McGee with Nancy Mayo on piano. The concert will feature operatic favorites including “Je veux vivre” Roméo et Juliette, “Kuda, kuda” Eugene Onegin, “Caro nome” Rigoletto, “Cosa sento!” Trio from Le nozze di Figaro, “Refrain, audacious tar” – Duet from H.M.S. Pinafore.
Saturday, June 5 at 7:00PM Join us as we return to the Compton Heights garden of Dr. Kenneth and Marjorie Smith and welcome back Metropolitan Opera soprano Mary Dunleavy for a special Saturday night concert. Ms. Dunleavy will present a selection of arias from opera’s favorite courtesans (such as Violetta, Manon, Madama Butterfly) as well as art songs by American composer Amy Beach with pianist Gail Hintz.
Sunday, June 27 at 6:00PM We conclude our series in the in Webster Groves garden of Jack and Mary LaBarge as we introduce our very own Figaro, Robert Mellon alongside 2021 season artists Erin Haupt and Liya Khaimova with Nancy Mayo on piano. Concert highlights include “Largo al factotum” Il barbiere di Siviglia, “Elle a fui, la tourterelle” Les Contes d’Hoffmann, “Che faro senza Euridice” Orfeo, “Evening Prayer” duet from Hansel and Gretel, and “Soave il vento” trio from Così fan tutte.
Tickets are $50 for individuals or $100 for Patron Seating which includes the best reserved seats and a $50 tax-deductible donation to UAO. Tickets are on sale now at www.unionavenueopera.org and must be ordered in advance (no door sales)
About Union Avenue Opera – UAO was founded in 1994 to bring affordable, professional, originallanguage opera to St. Louis, a mission the company continues to pursue to this day. UAO is committed to hiring the most talented artists, directors, designers and technicians both locally and from across the United States. UAO provides promising singers the first steppingstone of their professional career. The company celebrated its 25th Anniversary Season in 2019 and offers vibrant and affordable opera experiences in original languages to audiences who reflect the breadth and diversity of the St. Louis region. UAO is a publicly supported 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization registered in Missouri. In 2018 UAO became an OPERA American Professional Company Member. OPERA America is the national membership organization for artists, administrators and audiences, dedicated to support the creation, presentation and enjoyment of opera.
Financial assistance has been provided by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency, and with support from the Regional Arts Commission, and funded in part by the Arts and Education Council.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.