Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

La Périchole in Marseille

The most notable of all Péricholes of Offenbach’s sentimental operetta is surely the legendary Hortense Schneider who created the role back in 1868 at Paris’ Théâtre des Varietés. Alas there is no digital record.

Three Centuries Collide: Widmann, Ravel and Beethoven

It’s very rare that you go to a concert and your expectation of it is completely turned on its head. This was one of those. Three works, each composed exactly a century apart, beginning and ending with performances of such clarity and brilliance.

Seventeenth-century rhetoric from The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

‘Yes, in my opinion no rhetoric more persuadeth or hath greater power over the mind; hath not Musicke her figures, the same which Rhetorique? What is a but her Antistrophe? her reports, but sweet Anaphora's? her counterchange of points, Antimetabole's? her passionate Aires but Prosopopoea's? with infinite other of the same nature.’

Hrůša’s Mahler: A Resurrection from the Golden Age

Jakub Hrůša has an unusual gift for a conductor and that is to make the mightiest symphony sound uncommonly intimate. There were many moments during this performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony where he grappled with its monumental scale while reducing sections of it to chamber music; times when the power of his vision might crack the heavens apart and times when a velvet glove imposed the solitude of prayer.

Full-Throated Troubador Serenades San José

Verdi’s sublimely memorable melodies inform and redeem his setting of the dramatically muddled Il Trovatore, the most challenging piece to stage of his middle-period successes.

Opera North deliver a chilling Turn of the Screw

Storm Dennis posed no disruption to this revival of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, first unveiled at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2010, but there was plenty of emotional turbulence.

Luisa Miller at English National Opera

Verdi's Luisa Miller occupies an important position in the composer's operatic output. Written for Naples in 1849, the work's genesis was complex owing to problems with the theatre and the Neapolitan censors.

Eugène Onéguine in Marseille

A splendid 1997 provincial production of Tchaikovsky’s take on Pushkin’s Bryonic hero found its way onto a major Provençal stage just now. The historic Opéra Municipal de Marseille possesses a remarkable acoustic that allowed the Pushkin verses to flow magically through Tchaikovsky’s ebullient score.

Opera Undone: Tosca and La bohème

If opera can sometimes seem unyieldingly conservative, even reactionary, it made quite the change to spend an evening hearing and seeing something which was so radically done.

A refined Acis and Galatea at Cadogan Hall

The first performance of Handel's two-act Acis and Galatea - variously described as a masque, serenata, pastoral or ‘little opera’ - took place in the summer of 1718 at Cannons, the elegant residence of James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos.

Lise Davidsen: A superlative journey through the art of song

Are critics capable of humility? The answer should always be yes, yet I’m often surprised how rare it seems to be. It took the film critic of The Sunday Times, Dilys Powell, several decades to admit she had been wrong about Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a film excoriated on its release in 1960. It’s taken me considerably less time - and largely because of this astounding recital - to realise I was very wrong about Lise Davidsen.

Parsifal in Toulouse

Aurélien Bory, director of a small, avant garde theater company in Toulouse, staged a spellbinding Parsifal at the Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse’s famed Orchestre National du Capitole in the pit — FYI the Capitole is Toulouse’s city hall, the opera house is a part of it.

An Evening with Rosina Storchio: Ermonela Jaho at Wigmore Hall

‘The world’s most acclaimed Soprano’: the programme booklet produced for Ermonela Jaho’s Wigmore Hall debut was keen to emphasise the Albanian soprano’s prestigious status, as judged by The Economist, and it was standing-room only at the Hall which was full to capacity with Jaho’s fervent fans and opera-lovers.

Parsifal in Palermo

Richard Wagner chose to finish his Good Friday opera while residing in Sicily’s Palermo, partaking of the natural splendors of its famed verdant basin, the Conca d’Oro, and reveling in the golden light of its surreal Monreale cathedral.

Vladimir Jurowski conducts a magnificent Siegfried

“Siegfried is the Man of the Future, the man we wish, the man we will, but cannot make, and the man who must create himself through our annihilation.” This was Richard Wagner, writing in 1854, his thoughts on Siegfried. The hero of Wagner’s Siegfried, however, has quite some journey to travel before he gets to the vision the composer described in that letter to August Roeckel. Watching Torsten Kerl’s Siegfried in this - largely magnificent - concert performance one really wondered how tortuous a journey this would be.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi in Rome

Shakespearean sentiments may gracefully enrich Gounod’s Romeo et Juliet, but powerful Baroque tensions enthrall us in the bel canto complexities of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Conductor Daniele Gatti’s offered a truly fine bel canto evening at Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera introducing a trio of fine young artists.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali makes versatile debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali has been making waves internationally for some time. The chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra is set to take over from Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2021.

Tristan und Isolde in Bologna

East German stage director Ralf Pleger promised us a Tristan unlike anything we had ever seen. It was indeed. And Slovakian conductor Jura Valčuha gave us a Tristan as never before heard. All of this just now in the most Wagnerian of all Italian cities — Bologna!


Seductively morbid – The Fall of the House of Usher in The Hague

What does it feel like to be depressed? “It’s like water seeping into my heart” is how one young sufferer put it.

Daring Pairing Doubles the Fun by Pacific Opera Project

Puccini’s only comedy, the one act Gianni Schicchi is most often programmed with a second short piece of tragic fare, but the adventurous Pacific Opera Project has banked on a fanciful Ravel opus to sustain the mood and send the audience home with tickled ribs and gladdened hearts.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):