Falstaff is in a way a summation of everything that Verdi had been striving for during his long and illustrious career as Italy’s leading 19th century composer. It is a masterpiece, not only dramatically, but text (Boito) and music are so indelibly linked – unlike any Italian opera that went before, that one might be tempted to describe Falstaff as the ultimate gesamtkuntswerk. Perish the thought, some might say, but when one thinks of Verdi, achingly beautiful melodies spring to mind combined with rock solid dramaturgy, so the quicksilver wit, ensemble writing and audacity in this opera can come as a bit of a shock to the system.
When given a superlative performance, as it is here, Verdi’s final opera never fails to lighten the spirit and The Royal Opera has pulled out all the stops for this new staging by Robert Carsen, wittily designed by Paul Steinberg (sets) and Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes). Updated to the late 1950s, and with the focus on food, Carsen and his team steer clear of caricature and present the opera in a completely different light to all previous stagings I’ve seen. The curtain rises on the eponymous knight it bed, looking particularly grubby and down at heal in his long johns, and given Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri’s fulsome girth, there’s no need for unnecessary padding. Here, he’s a member of the aristocracy who despite falling on hard times, still thinks he’s got what it takes to not only lord it over others, but have his way with the ladies as well.
The next scene is set in what looks like an upmarket Lyons’ tea house, where the merry wives meet for a gossip, much to the annoyance of the other diners. In a brilliant stroke of genius, the scene freezes for Fenton and Nannetta’s assignation, and the entire scene is bathed in moonlight. Pure magic. The Fords’ house is straight from the pages of a 1950s’ ‘Ideal Home’ magazine – maybe a touch too American, but it provides the perfect backdrop for the slapstick antics that ensue.
Maestri sings the role with exemplary ease, colour and never once descends into parody, and what a joy it is to hear an Italian in this role. He is the lynchpin of the performance, but that’s not to say that the rest of the cast can’t hold their own in his august company. Ana Maria Martinez as Alice leads the merry wives with aplomb and receives delicious support from Kai Rüütel’s Meg Page and Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s ‘Carry On’ Mistress Quickly. Amanda Forsythe and Joel Prieto make a handsome couple as Nannetta and Fenton, whilst Alasdair Elliott’s Bardolph and Lukas Jakobski’s Pistol are the perfect comic foil to Maestri’s Falstaff. Dalibor Jenis is not in the same league as the cuckolded Ford, but his monologue ‘O sogno, o realta?’ has the necessary bite.
In the pit Daniele Gatti makes a welcome return to The Royal Opera and conducts a glorious account of the work – he draws out every colour from the huge orchestral palette that Verdi provides and the orchestra plays with enthusiasm, commitment and verve.
The only slight niggle is the inclusion of Rupert the horse who proves to be an unnecessary distraction in the third act, and by this stage of the evening Steinberg’s wood-panelled set was becoming a bit tiring on the eye as well, but he and Carsen have devised an ending that really came as a surprise and brought the curtain down on a delicious and effervescent evening. Unbelievably the production team’s curtain call brought a few isolated, but forte boos from the upper reaches of the House. Quite why anyone could take issue with such an ebullient staging is beyond me. Audiences in Milan and Toronto are in for a treat.
Falstaff is relayed to 15 BP Summer Big Screens on Wednesday 30 May