Craig Colclough in the title role of Verdi's 'Falstaff' at Wolf Trap Opera

Craig Colclough in the title role of Verdi's 'Falstaff' at Wolf Trap Opera (Carol Pratt / August 13, 2013)

"Falstaff," the last of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas, is a marvel. From the first notes, the musical inventiveness never stops. And, thanks in large measure to the libretto Arrigo Boito fashioned from Shakespeare, the opera is a continual theatrical delight, with many a delicious character and comic situations that still deliver.

To wrap up its season, Wolf Trap Opera offers an exhilarating production of this gem. If you haven’t been yet -- and, especially, if you are one of those folks who has never warmed to "Falstaff" (the piece rarely sets box offices ablaze) -- do try to catch it.

In one very important respect, this is "Falstaff" like you’ve probably never experienced it. Since the staging is in the cozy Barns at Wolf Trap, where there’s a small pit, it’s impossible to assemble the full orchestral forces Verdi wrote for.  

A mere reduction of the score wouldn’t quite do, since it would just draw attention to what is missing. So the clever Wolf Trap company found an unpublished version created years ago by the fine British opera composer Jonathan Dove.  He basically re-imagined the whole score as if Verdi had always intended only 15 or so instruments.

I’d call it "Falstaff"-lite, only that would sound like a put-down. And this really is a remarkably convincing edition, full of clever touches that help the ear adjust quickly to the chamber-sized palette. And under the astute guidance of conductor Dean Williamson, the orchestra articulates the arrangement with great panache.

Wolf Trap Opera, devoted to nurturing emerging artists, has assembled a very effective cast, directed with propulsion and mostly well-timed shtick by Tomer Zvulun.

Of course, it’s hard to make young singers look old, so some suspension of disbelief is required. There’s no mistaking the wigs, fake beards and, in the case of the title character, the thinly disguised attempt at creating a bald pate. But it’s easy to get past all that, given the vitality of the performances, starting with Craig Colclough’s winning portrayal of Falstaff.  

The bass-baritone gets physically deep into the assignment and does some very funny stage business along the way. He also sings with abundant energy, tonal coloring and expressive bite. If his voice continues to develop (more heft at the top range will be helpful in larger houses), Colclough is bound to do great things with this role in the future, given the assurance and incisiveness he already displays.

The two merry wives who get hit on by the delusional Falstaff are vibrantly performed by Tracy Cox (Alice) and Carolyn Sproule (a velvety-voiced Meg). Norman Garrett is a little short on vocal power at times, but still makes a potent Ford.

Mireille Asselin’s sweet soprano hits the spot as Nannetta, though the sound tends to be monochromatic. Matthew Grills, as Fenton, could use a touch more variety of tone as well, but the impassioned phrasing and the ping in the tenor’s voice pay dividends.

The production, designed by Erhard Rom, is spare, with lots of Tudor-style walls and, as a recurring prop, a big, two-sided painting (Falstaff on one side, Verdi on the other). Another, cuter recurring image -- call it a light-motif -- involves a silhouette of Nannetta and Fenton smooching.

Things are at their most visually engaging in the last act, which conjures up the spooky Windsor Forest in delectable style.

I wasn’t convinced by the outfit Falstaff assembled for his wooing, or the way Fenton ended up resembling a vintage ice cream vendor, but the rest of Vita Tzykun’s fanciful costumes added a lively touch to the proceedings.

All in all, a rewarding experience with the opera that crowned Verdi’s long, glorious career.

The final performances of "Falstaff" are Wednesday and Saturday.