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Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff [Photo © ROH/Catherine Ashmore]
07 Jul 2015

Falstaff, Royal Opera

Director Robert Carsen’s 2012 production of Verdi’s Falstaff, here revived by Christophe Gayral, might be subtitled ‘full of stuff’ or ‘stuffed full’: for it’s a veritable orgy of feasting from first to last - from Falstaff’s breakfast binge-in-bed to the final sumptuous wedding banquet.

Falstaff, Royal Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff

Photos © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

 

Trollies of detritus in the old rogue’s bed-chamber testify to several days of epicurean revelling, the bourgeoisie of Windsor are a quartet of ‘ladies who lunch’, Fenton is a hotel waiter, Falstaff’s thwarted assignation with Alice Ford takes place in the kitchen; even the stable horse who in Act 3 indifferently watches over Falstaff’s glum reflections on the grim state of the world gets in on the act, munching stoically from a hay-bag. Such gastronomic excess seems fitting for an opera whose protagonist avows (in Henry IV Part 1), ‘let a cup of sack be my poison’ and faces his battles with the rallying self-reassurance, ‘To the latter end of a fray and the beginning of a feast/ Fits a dull fighter and a keen guest’.

Carsen transports us from the end of the first Elizabethan era to the beginning of the second — the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1950s — an updating designed (so Ian Burton, Carson’s dramaturg explains) to highlight the loosening of social and class hierarchies characteristic to both periods in which the diminishing aristocracy were challenged by the emergence of ‘new money’ and a rising working-class. Paul Steinberg’s terrific sets are a riot of retro memorabilia — at least, in the opening two Acts — and are matched for period panache by Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s colour-clashing costumes. The Garter Inn is no longer a shabby hostelry but a mid-market country hotel, its panelled walls decorated with the antlered prizes of hunting parties past, and whose guest are a bunch of nouveau-riche social climbers. From the gentleman’s lounge we move to the Fords’ formica kitchen, where the bright yellow colour scheme and plethora of gadgets are evidence of the couple’s consumerist optimism.

2714ashm_131-copy-AINHOA-ARTETA-AS-ALICE-FORD,-AGNES-ZWIERKO-AS-MISTRESS-QUICKLY,-ANNA-DEVIN-AS-NANNETTA,-KAI-RÜÜTEL-AS-MEG-PAGE-©-ROH.--CATHERINE-ASHMORE.pngAinhoa Arteta as Alice Ford, Agnes Zwierko as Mistress Quickly, Anna Devin as Nannetta, and Kai Rüütel as Meg Page

Amid these fashion-conscious upstarts and entrepreneurs, Sir John is a figure of fun and fading fortune: a foul-mouthed reprobate whose waistband expands as his social standing and purse deteriorate. He may don country tweeds and a scarlet hunting frock-coat to impress the ladies, but it’s the filthy long-johns of the opening scene which are the best fit.

The visual apparatus is impressive, but Carsen does not neglect the stagecraft which responds neatly to Verdi’s musical structures. The movement is sometimes frenetic but always just the right side of chaos: and the ransacking of the domestic order by Ford and his grey-suited employees, as they search in vain for his reputedly adulterous wife and the back-stabbing Falstaff is a scream. But, there are moments of intimacy too — significantly aided by Peter Van Praet’s lighting design — which create oases of calm amid the clamour. Fenton and Nannetta snatch brief moments of private tenderness between the courses of a public meal; Ford’s jealous rant is cloaked in an eerie blue half-light.

However imaginative and slick the direction, Verdi’s opera stands or falls by its protagonist, and it’s hard to imagine a baritone better suited to, or more astute in, the role than Ambrogio Maestri, here returning to the role he played in the 2012 first production. In the role-playing scene in Henry IV Part 1, Falstaff (play-acting King Henry IV) describes himself as a ‘virtuous man ... A goodly portly man, i’ faith, and a corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye and a most noble carriage’ only to have his pomp punctured by Hal’s accusation that the old Knight is an ‘abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan’. Maestri, through his attention to dramatic and musical detail reminds us how difficult it is to ‘pigeon-hole’ Sir John: is he a hard-headed conman or a harmless comic buffoon; a self-gratifying glutton or an aging ‘gentleman’ surrounded by uncaring hangers-on and chancers?

2714ashm_607-copy-ROLAND-WOOD-AS-FORD,-INHOA-ARTETA-AS-ALICE-FORD-©-ROH.--CATHERINE-ASHMORE.pngRoland Wood as Ford and Inhoa Arteta as Alice Ford

The ‘fat rogue’ is defined by his corpulence: without it, he fears ‘my skin hangs about me like an old lady’s loose gown; I am withered like an old apple-john … I shall be out of heart shortly, and then I shall have no strength to repent’. Maestri has the physical and vocal presence, and the relaxed demeanour, to convey Sir John Falstaff’s mythic status and epic bulk, as well as the thoughtfulness and insight to offer subtleties too — to hint at, though not over-play, the complexities, darkness and pathos, beneath the affectionate parody. He may have embodied the aging Knight of the Garter countless times but there was no sense of routine or staleness. We had bombast and bathos; felt repugnance and pity. Maestri is a big man, but he is nimble of footwork and of voice. His is a powerful baritone and whether yelling for ‘another bottle’ or damning the tattered scroungers who linger like scavenging seagulls in Falstaff’s wake, Maestri boomed generously; but he recognised the moments to hold back, occasionally retreating to almost a whisper, and it was at such times that a more vulnerable Sir John showed himself. The sheer beauty of tone, particularly at the top, was beguiling; sufficient to sweep aside any moral misgivings about Falstaff’s selfish debauchery. No less impressive than the vocal control and variety was Maestri’s relish for the words — his appetite for the nuances of the text was equal to the Fat Knight’s craving for capon and Chianti.

When the comic temperature is high, there is always a risk of caricature, but the splendid cast served up real characters whose ostentations and affections were tempered by humanity. Of the merry wives of Windsor, Ainhoa Arteta’s Alice Ford excelled; Arteta relished Verdi’s luxurious melodies, which she coated with the sheen of a pearl, floating glisteningly in the ensembles. As Mistress Quickly, Agnes Zwierko was a busy stage presence and worked hard vocally, colouring her ‘Reverenza’ with faux-veneration; although she needed a bit more fruity contralto depth to really vivify the role, Zwierko acted superbly, especially when delivering the missives of deception and when hoodwinking Falstaff at the Garter Inn.

Kai Rüütel’s Meg Page exhibited a warm vocal sensuality, but it was Anna Devin’s Nannetta who took one’s breath away. Nannetta’s every phrase drew one’s attention, as the floaty lines soared with power and lyricism. I loved the way in her first romantic exchange with Fenton in Act 1 that the high Ab first established Nannetta’s clarity of conviction, then retreated demurely, before surging with burning passion. Such vocal control suggests real artistry and musico-dramatic intelligence.

2714ashm_149-copy-LUKAS-JAKOBSKI-AS-PISTOL,-ALASDAIR-ELLIOTT-AS-BARDOLPH,-LUIS-GOMES-AS-FENTON,-ROLAND-WOOD-AS-FORD,-PETER-HOARE-AS-DR-CAIUS-©-ROH.--CATHERINE-ASHMORE.pngLukas Jakobski as Pistol, Alasdair Elliott as Bardolph, Luis Gomes as Fenton, Roland Wood as Ford, and Peter Hoare as Dr Caius

As Bardolph, Alasdair Elliott’s tenor was agile and focused, and the mis-matched heights of Bardolph and Pistol (Lukas Jakobski) created immediate visual humour; but there is a darkness about the gangsters’ loitering with intent for ill-gotten gain. The pair are tattered scroungers who will steal a diner’s handbag while passing them their dropped napkin, and even find rich-pickings in the Fords’ dirty laundry: one feels that Sir John’s filthy underwear would be filched if the opportunity arose. Peter Hoare’s Dr Caius was characteristically precise and strong.

Roland Wood was engaging as Ford, particular when as ‘Master Brook’ - a Stetson-sporting Texan tycoon — he bantered with Maestri: this was one of the evening’s comic highlights. Wood was able, however, to tip strikingly from jape to jealousy, and his long soliloquy was intense and compelling. Jette Parker Young Artist Luis Gomez was a suave-toned Fenton, but he needed a bit more dramatic vivacity to match Devin’s resolute Nannetta.

Things moved swiftly, but not precipitously, along under the direction of conductor Michael Schønwandt, who launched the opening moments with dazzling bravura and just about kept the complicated finales of Act 1 and 2 under control. The ROH Orchestra were on characteristically good form, although given the way Verdi’s score tells the tale, they occasionally seemed in danger of being over-shadowed by the mad-cap activity on stage. But, woodwind solos - especially clarinet and bassoon — came neatly to the fore, and the horns demonstrated nimbleness and sweetness of tone. The double basses kicked off Act 3 with a delicious growling; the first violins’ steep and speedy tumbles were cleanly executed.

If there is any weakness in Carsen’s direction, it is in the final Act, where the munching horse distracts from the pathos of Falstaff’s post-Thames-dip lamentations, sung by Maestri on a heap of straw at the back of the stage, and where the panelled walls do not sufficiently summon the magic and mystery of Windsor Great Forest, despite the effusions of dry ice. But, as the ‘Queen of the Fairies’, Devlin provided mesmeric musical compensation in ‘Sul fil d'un soffio etesio’, calling the fairies from their hiding place and commanding them to dance; and the final image of a be-horned Falstaff rolling along the gang-plank banqueting table, the target of black-cloaked, knife-wielding figures, was a potent one. In the closing moments of the opera, Carsen restored what might, given the forest setting, be termed a spirit of pastoral harmony and reconciliation. As Boito and Verdi remind us, he who laughs the best is he who laughs last; a fitting sentiment for the audience as we left the theatre with a smile on our faces.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Sir John Falstaff, Ambrogio Maestri; Alice Ford,Ainhoa Arteta; Ford, Roland Wood; Nannetta, Anna Devin; Fenton, Luis Gomes; Mistress Quickly, Agnes Zwierko; Meg Page, Kai Rüütel; Dr Caius, Peter Hoare; Bardolfo, Alasdair Elliott; Pistol, Lukas Jakobski; Director, Robert Carsen; Conductor, Michael Schønwandt; Set designs,Paul Steinberg; Costume designs,Brigitte Reiffenstuel; Lighting design,Robert Carsen; Lighting design, Peter van Praet; Royal Opera Chorus; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Monday 6th July 2015.

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