15 Mar 2013

Robert Carsen’s Falstaff, Paris

With Robert Carsen’s production of Falstaff almost inescapably making the rounds of the world's operatic stages, it is well worth it to take in another production altogether.

Paris premiered Dominique Pitoiset's effort in 1999, and comparisons are apt in the two approaches to this adaptation of Shakespeare's whimsical The Merry Wives of Windsor. While Carsen's Windsor is that of a seedy, ration-starved 1950s Britain, Pitoiset's is set a generation earlier, in a late Edwardian early 1900s. Of course it predated the wildly popular television program Downton Abbey, but one can grasp avant la lettre the same comments on traditional elites confronted with the ugly underbelly of modernity. The Garter Inn, the lodging where Falstaff's shrunken budget has outworn his welcome, is a frowzy establishment set between an automobile garage that advertises daily motor tours to Royal Park and the Herne Oak (the setting of Act III) and a steam laundry business called "Quickly's," after the go-between servant character who carries messages between Falstaff and the ladies he admires. Even an ignoble knight placed in these brick-built industrial surroundings can still draw the sympathy and derision with which Verdi endowed him in equal measure. Only the third act lacked insight. Rather than hide the walls, they are darkened slightly to accommodate a projection of the Herne Oak. Surely there could have been a more effective change of scene.

Today the opera world has two reigning Falstaffs: Ambrogio Maestri, who sang in this production, and Bryn Terfel, with whom Maestri frequently alternates (as he did in La Scala's outing of the Carsen production earlier this year). Maestri's strong baritone makes him a fine counterpart, and perhaps a more lyrical and Italianate one. But he lacks the warm resonances and expansiveness of character that Terfel can bring to role. Still, his performance as the fat knight offered no cause for complaint and radiated devilishly good humor and the necessary hints of beguiling charm.

A fine supporting cast proved what a great ensemble piece this can be. Svetla Vassileva's Alice Ford offered a comforting portrayal of the woman who can outwit her seducer while still arranging her daughter's marriage to the right man. Marie-Nicole Lemieux's attractive lower tones proved that she deserves her frequent casting in the role of Mistress Quickly. The role of Ford, Alice's outraged husband, fell to the stentorian Artur Rucinski. And what a delight it was to hear the attractive young Russian soprano Elena Tsallagova float exquisite piano high notes in the role of the lovesick Nanetta. The promising lyric tenor Paolo Fanale paired well with her. Daniel Oren gave a reasonable but not truly incisive reading of the score.

Paul du Quenoy

Click here for cast and production information.