A more accomplished and fulfilling celebration of the more than four decades career of Professor Richard Cox of the School of Music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro that took place between Friday November 9 and Sunday November 11 could not be imagined. Great has been his impact as a teacher and conductor of multiple vocal ensembles on campus and in the surrounding communities. In addition to a Choral Ensemble Reunion to be conducted by Cox on Saturday, he also directed two remarkably fine concert performances of Giuseppe Verdi's opera Falstaff on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. The well-prepared orchestra was the UNC-G Symphony whose student musicians were exceptionally responsive and played with unexpected subtlety. It was appropriate that the entire cast including the chorus was made up entirely of alumni. I attended the first performance on Friday night and would have loved to have been free to catch the Sunday matinee repeat.
Of all of Verdi's twenty-eight operas, Falstaff is probably the one that suffers least from performance in concert form. Without the distraction of staging, one could concentrate more on the unusually full super-title translation that helped the audience to be instantly on top of the situation and to be able to experience the side-splitting humor to an unusual degree. I cannot remember a comic opera performance that had as much direct audience response.
Richard Cox conducted all the major Spring Opera productions at UNC-G between 1979 and 1988, including a 1979 Falstaff that featured the same cast as Alice Ford, Dr. Cajus, Pistol, Falstaff and Fenton as sang in these two concert performances. Illness prevented the scheduled Robert Overman from singing the role of Sir John Falstaff. He was replaced on short notice by the able Philip Stovall, a tall sort of "Melchoir-lite" giant who had sung the role in the '79 production. With his volatile facial expressions and confident stage presence, the bass-baritone fully evoked the self-deluded rascal and sponger. His voice was a little dry at first but quickly warmed up. Several memorable scenes stand out--the superbly contemptuous " Onore! Ladri !" ("Honor! Thieves!"), which librettist Boïto stitched together from Henry IV, Part I (Act V, i); and the section from The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act II, ii and iii) in which Falstaff castigates Pistol and Bardolph for refusing to pander and deliver his letters to Alice Ford and Meg. Julian Budden, in The Operas of Verdi, Vol. 3, reminds us that the scholar Stanford aptly characterized Falstaff's speech as "the smiling sister of Iago's 'Credo'." It is one of my favorite scenes in all of opera, and it was brought to vivid life on this occasion. The fine student orchestra, starting with the double basses alone, set the scene that eventually traced the flow of mulled wine throughout the chilled paunch of the wet old knight after his dunking in the Thames at the end of Act II.
Tenor John Cary (Bardolph) and baritone David Mellnik (Pistol) were delightful as Falstaff's rascals with moral quibbles. Their raucous "Amen" after Dr. Cajus's exit in Act I had the audience in stitches. Soprano Joan Metelli as Alice Ford and light mezzo-soprano Alexa Jackson Schlimmer as Meg Page were firm-voiced as the honorable recipients of Sir John's unsubtle form-love-letter. As the go-between Dame Quickly, deep mezzo-soprano Sandra Walker almost stole every scene in which she was featured. Her little shake on her mock " Reverenza " was unforgettable. Ford, the husband whose jealousy shows too easily, was brought to life by lyric baritone Dwight Coleman. His daughter Nanetta was sung by soprano Polly Butler Cornelius, who has been heard frequently in both the Triangle and the Triad in opera and on symphony programs. Her song as the Queen of the Faeries was outstanding. Her ardent lover Fenton was firmly sung by tenor Jeffrey Price, whose passion was barely contained. Wilson Jeffrey's plaintive tenor was ideal for the irascible and lovelorn Dr. Cajus. In Act I, i, his "swearing that if ever [he got] drunk again would be amid honest, sober, civil and devout people" brought down the house. The knowing audience hung upon every word to an extraordinary degree. Once again I noted that Greensboro audiences tend to be much more diverse in age and race than those in the Triangle, which are often lacking both younger people and minorities.