Manitoba Opera went for the belly laughs as it opened its 44th season with the notable company première of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff. The Italian master’s sole comic opera depicts vainglorious knight Sir John Falstaff’s cocksure attempts to woo two married women: Alice Ford and Meg Page. It conflates Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, with the opera regarded by many as Verdi’s greatest stage work.

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Manitoba Opera went for the belly laughs as it opened its 44th season with the notable company première of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff. The Italian master’s sole comic opera depicts vainglorious knight Sir John Falstaff’s cocksure attempts to woo two married women: Alice Ford and Meg Page. It conflates Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, with the opera regarded by many as Verdi’s greatest stage work.

However, the noble art of comedy can be as elusive as catching a shadow. Often boiling down to individual taste, its many stylistic flavours range from subtle irony to full-on slapstick. In this case, acclaimed Winnipeg-born director Michael Cavanagh’s comic paintbrush opted for broad strokes that sometimes worked, and often didn’t, as the production’s crackerjack cast competed with copious sight gags and cheeky butt jokes à la adult animated sitcom South Park.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Todd Thomas who is singing Falstaff with Monica Huisman (left) as Alice Ford and Lauren Segal, as Meg Page in the Manitoba Opera performance Falstaff at the Centennial Concert Hall. Holly Harris story Nov. 15 2016</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Todd Thomas who is singing Falstaff with Monica Huisman (left) as Alice Ford and Lauren Segal, as Meg Page in the Manitoba Opera performance Falstaff at the Centennial Concert Hall. Holly Harris story Nov. 15 2016

The fact is that Arrigo Boito’s clever/insightful Italian libretto (with surtitles) provides ample humour without Falstaff’s needing to "pee" (et cetera) on trees and various castmates. That gag ultimately cheapens Verdi’s final opera, which is arguably only a slim razor’s edge from his most searing tragedies. Our hearts go out to those characters; it’s not a far leap to suggest that the morbidly obese, desperately delusional knight naturally falls into that good company, without necessitating gilding the lily with stage business, tricks and shtick.

The impressive cast of principals is among the finest assembled on this stage, beginning with American baritone Todd Thomas in the title role. Renowned internationally as a true Verdi baritone, this booming powerhouse, who also enthralled local audiences as the hunchbacked jester in Manitoba Opera’s Rigoletto in 2012 and Count di Luna during its 2008 production of Il Trovatore, performed his third company role with utter conviction. He fulfilled his lumbering protagonist’s emotional trajectory, ranging from his opening declamatory Act I aria L’Onore! Ladri! to Act III’s poignant Ehi taverniere! Mondo ladro that suddenly revealed an achingly vulnerable, faded hero beneath his fleshy carapace. Thomas’ compassionate portrayal, matched by a resonant voice that is its own force of nature, created a multidimensional, all-too-human knight whose shining armor has tarnished.

It’s difficult to imagine any singer holding their own with Thomas, yet Winnipeg-born baritone Gregory Dahl did just that as Alice’s jealous, hotheaded husband Ford. Last appearing on the Manitoba Opera stage as George in its 2016 production Of Mice and Men, Dahl stormed the stage like a powderkeg ready to blow, barely containing his fury during Act II’s explosive E sogno? o realta.

Winnipeg soprano Monica Huisman, in her role debut as Alice Ford, infused her character with plenty of sassy backbone, conspiring with mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal’s equally compelling Meg Page to teach Falstaff a lesson during Alice. Meg. Nannetta, where they mock the "king of all bellies." Her powerful vocals and own comic chops — pure lute-strumming innocence after setting the initial trap for Falstaff — further testify to this gifted performer’s versatility. Mistress Quickly, sung by contralto Lynne McMurtry, helped machinate the plot like a master puppeteer, sparring and baiting Falstaff with secret love notes.

Two Manitoba Opera newcomers were a highlight. Soprano Sasha Djihanian as the Fords’ high-spirited daughter Nannette radiated with clarion goodness during her Act III aria Sul fil d’un soffio etesio while disguised as the Fairy Princess. Her lovesick heartthrob Fenton performed by Kevin Myers brimmed with the impulsivity of youth, his pure lyrical tenor voice seducing last Saturday’s opening-night audience as much as it did Nannette.

Falstaff’s animated sidekicks, Pistola (bass Tyler Putnam) and Bardolfo (tenor James McLennan) played for laughs while tenor Christopher Mayell’s Dr. Caius at times strained to be heard.

The final, triumphant 12-part buffa fugue, in which all come together at the end capped the 150-minute (including intermission) production with its iconic line, "He who laughs last, laughs best."

Maestro Tyrone Paterson ably led the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra through Verdi’s ebullient, three-act score.

The Manitoba Opera Chorus, prepared by Tadeusz Biernacki, morphed into villagers, forest nymphs and elves, also pinch-hitting as stagehands during several awkward set changes.

Sumptuous period costumes and a modular set designed by Olivier Landreville for the New York City Opera (now owned by Opéra de Montréal) proved effective. Bill Williams’ always spot on lighting included fantastical gobo effects and luminous moon glow that shed light on the finally resolved, laughing lovers. In turn, they were rewarded with a standing ovation and cries of bravo by the enthusiastic crowd.

Falstaff continues tonight at 7 p.m. with one final show held Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Centennial Concert Hall.

holly.harris@shaw.ca