Falstaff at the Royal Opera House
Helen Wallace reviews Covent Garden's production of Verdi's opera
Photo: ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Verdi’s late masterpiece is one of those beloved operas, everyone has their own idea of how it should be. Which makes any new production a target for critics and a treat for the audience. Covent Garden’s luxuriously cast show could hardly fail to charm (a six year-old in the stalls was laughing out loud) – which seems to have riled a number of critics who smelt a crowd-pleaser. While Daniele Gatti provided intuitive, understated elegance in the pit, Robert Carsen brought rigorous stagecraft, animated by an impish sense of play: this Falstaff simply radiates joie de vivre.
Just as Verdi took a quintessentially English drama and illuminated it with Italian sunshine and a good dose of machismo, so Carsen riffs on the last vestiges of the English class system in the late 1950s refracted through the Italian obsession with its tailoring. We’re in the royal world of tweeds, hunting pinks, Hunter wellies, horses, stags and Caledonian balls. Falstaff brings Alice Ford a bloodied fox’s tail as courting gift. The lady’s couture and grooming is Mad Men-gorgeous, and the Garter Inn is a smart hotel apparently inspired by the elegant art deco of Eltham Palace.
With the memory of Bryn Terfel’s tragic, larger-than-life Falstaff still in the minds of many (from Vick’s production which re-opened the ROH in 1999), this hero had to be different. And he was. Not only is Ambrogio Maestri naturally large (no fat suit required) but his sung Italian is effortlessly beautiful as only an Italian’s can be. In fact, his whole performance appeared effortless, his comic timing unforced, his sotto voce parlando exquisite, his jaunty dance remarkably neat, his voice warm, mellifluous, apparently bottomless. This was no Brian Blessed cartoon of Shakespeare’s fat knight: this just was Falstaff.
He provided the hub around which an intensely vivacious cast danced – as he says, the butt that sharpens their own wit – and appeared resistant to pathos . His introspective lament in Act Two was upstaged by the attentions of a charming horse. As he strode down the dining table to launch the final fugue, we knew his ego was comfortably intact.
Joining him were a priceless Bardolph and Pistol (tenor Alasdair Elliott & bass Lukas Jakobski) dressed as little and large Kray twins, the sumptuously-voiced soprano Ana María Martínez as Alice Ford and contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux an irresistibly comic Mistress Quickly (her impression of Falstaff was a highlight). The lovers were touchingly young and sweet, Fenton (tenor Joel Prieto) a touch underpowered, but Nanetta (soprano Amanda Forsythe) notably accomplished, floated a sheerly beautiful top A flat in their first scene together. Only Ford (baritone Dalibor Jenis) seemed vocally unfocused, despite a virile stage presence.
Maestri’s lightly-worn mastery was shared by Daniele Gatti in the pit: there was a bloom, an aura to this sophisticated and rhythmically alert performance. Melting horn solos graced the planning of the masquerade, limpid bassoon followed and singers never had to fight to be heard in the ensembles.
Act Three never quite reached the heights of the virtuoso choreographic display in Ford’s house. The chorus stood in for a forest, appearing in furs and antlers looking for all the world like the Knights Who Say Ni from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Whether or not an intentional reference, it somewhat stole the menace from their knife-sharpening, as Falstaff was rolled down a baronial dining table.
This is a production suffused with happiness and built to last. If you can’t get to Covent Garden, catch it on big screens in 15 locations around the country on May 30.