Falstaff, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, May 2012Posted on 16 May 2012
The production team for Robert Carsen’s new staging of Verdi’s Falstaff received a mixed reception. Why so?
This is a co-production with La Scala where it will feature in Verdi’s bicentenary there next year. Carsen has updated the setting of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor from Elizabethan times to 1950s England, with Sir John and other men in hunting red at the end. Nothing wrong with that, and I found Paul Steinberg’s vast set designs very effective, along with Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes. In Act III the two huge walls that frame Falstaff’s location after his river ordeal open out to reveal a starry sky behind, and Sir John appears on horseback. The horse itself was his neighbour as he lay on a pile of straw earlier in the Act, rising to drink a little wine and feed the horse some small treat. Quite effective, so where was the problem?
The end of Act II was set in Ford’s huge and brightly coloured kitchen, where the contents of the clothes hamper were tipped out of a large window facing the audience, Falstaff himself having scooched out behind one of the counters. Not a brilliant illusion, though passable enough, but before that there was a gratuitous comedic bustle as things were wildly tossed out of eye-level kitchen cupboards, and the assembled men went round the floor on all fours. This was a bit over the top, and comedy is best played seriously. Less can be more, but even that scene did not justify the many boos that greeted the production team.
The interplay of the characters was well directed, with Ambrogio Maestri singing well as Falstaff, and playing the comedy with admirable restraint. Here’s a man who’s a bit of a slob and can leave the funny bits to his henchmen, Alasdair Elliot and Lukas Jakobski as Bardolph and Pistol. This duo of the short and the tall was amusing to look at when they stood together, and I loved the small incident in Act I scene 2 when Bardolph came into the restaurant, wiping his hands on a table cloth before picking up a napkin to give back to one of the diners while purloining her handbag. A nice touch.
Verdi’s last opera is a musical masterpiece, started in collaborative secrecy with his brilliant librettist Boito, and Daniele Gatti conducted with great verve and sensitivity, moving things forward with huge effect. Musically this was a delight, and the singers brought the comedy very much to life.
Dalibor Jenis was a stylishly naïve Ford, Joel Prieto a handsome young Fenton, and Carlo Bosi a suitably dull Dr. Caius. The women all did very well with Ana Maria Martinez a charming Alice Ford, Marie-Nicole Lemieux a bumptiously fancy Mistress Quickly, the lining of her coat identical to her dress. Amanda Forsythe was vocally very pretty as Nannetta, and ex-Jette Parker young singer Kai Rüütel sang delightfully as Meg Page. Oh, and Rupert the Horse did a very fine job.
Audience ovations at the end for the conductor and singers, and despite the mixed reception accorded the production team, this Falstaff looks likely to last many years. The fact that the ROH has given us an effective production to such a superb opera is surely welcome after one or two recent duds, and this is part of the World Shakespeare Festival for 2012.
Performances continue until May 30 — for details click here. The final performance on May 30 will be relayed to 15 BP Summer Big Screens around the country, and on June 30 the production will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3.