Noisy Carsen Falstaff Falls Short of Zeffirelli’s Production

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Verdi, Falstaff: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of  the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Daniele Gatti (conductor),  Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 15.5.2012. (JPr)

New production by Robert Carsen
Set designs by Paul Steinberg
Costume designs by Brigitte Reiffensteul

Falstaff © Caroline Ashmore

There were quite a number of music website reviewers in the section of the Royal Opera House where I sat and it pained me to realise that I had probably seen more performances (of opera and ballet) there than all those others put together. I am not in any way suggesting that it makes me better than those with their degrees in music, media studies, arts administration or whatever, to comment on what I see; however I understood more than ever before with this particular  Falstaff how significant the experience of actually having seen previous productions can be. I was reminded by the ‘Performance Note’ that my experience with this opera at Covent Garden goes back to its first production there after World War II and the lavishly traditional Franco Zeffirelli staging that opened in 1961, lasting until 1978, and which I saw a couple of times later on with the incomparable Geraint Evans in the title role. I then saw both the subsequent productions by Ronald Eyre (1982) and Graham Vick’s multi-coloured interpretation that reopened the redeveloped Royal Opera House in 1999.

This might give the impression that this opera is a favourite of mine. It is on a short list – headed by Ariadne auf Naxos – that I am happy to return to time and again in the hope I will get more from it. Geraint Evans was a rightly famous and well-loved Falstaff and naturally his performance gains a lot because of the ‘rosy glow’ of memory over some 37 years. However this must not distract me from believing opinion is still divided about Verdi’s final opera. I get the impression that there are those who think it is his best and everybody else like me who can never understand what the fuss is all about. However, if anything was going to convince me that it is the masterpiece everyone makes it out to be then it will have been Daniele Gatti’s quasi-symphonic approach to the musical accompaniment. A number of times during the evening – which I really enjoyed apart from the doubts I will explain later – I imagined Verdi’s music being performed in concert independent of the voices, like some ballet music is. Maestro Gatti was making a rare return to the pit where he was principal guest conductor in the late 1990s;  he was, quite rightly, applauded by his musicians at the end of the evening and acclaimed by the audience, who were given a seamless, fleet-footed, sensitive account of a complex, intricate score with an underlying rhythmic pulse. Throughout it was quite compelling, totally engaging, expressive and atmospheric.

Prior to visiting La Scala and Toronto in the future, this new production is directed by Canadian Robert Carsen and he – ho-hum – updates it to the 1950s. If this has to be, it needs to be more fully thought through than here. Such an updating was seen to much better effect in a student production and here it seems to be primarily designed (sets by Paul Steinberg) to be broadcast-friendly, as it is a very ‘horizontal’ production with faux-wood panelling often filling about two-thirds of the depth of the stage and everything happening across the full width of the stage floor. Falstaff is relayed live as part of the BP Summer Big Screens season on 30 May and will look good in the broadcast, but whether it looked as good to those sitting in the seats highest up in the theatre is unlikely. However stage directors rarely seem to venture from the stalls or dress circle to appreciate what their productions might look like to those in the cheap(er) seats.

Falstaff is an old reprobate lodging in a luxurious country hotel with some dubious companions (Bardolph and Pistol) and we first see him in a large bed in filthy long-johns and surrounded by evidence of several days’ room service he is clearly unable to now pay for. Ford is ‘new money’ with his home represented by a kitchen complete with all the ‘mod-cons’ of the post-war time and garishly pink worktops. Falstaff is part of a more class-conscious time and much fun is made of ‘chattering’ colourfully dressed women disrupting diners and pre-empting the decline of the British Empire by invading the men’s retiring room. In full hunting regalia Falstaff (hunt master?) presents his inamorata, Alice Ford, with a fox’s tail as a gift! Perhaps for some this has nothing really to do with the original Elizabethan England but for me Carsen’s staging had its nouveau riche moments and was best in the madcap Richard Jones-inspired search for Falstaff in all the kitchen cupboards and drawers when Ford and his workers storm in hoping to catch him in flagrante delicto with his wife. Earlier I also liked small vignettes such as a fleeting moment in that ‘dining room’ scene when Bardolph wipes his hands on a tablecloth before picking up a napkin to give it back to someone and then walks off with her handbag. Another nice touch was the suspension of time when Fenton steals a few moments with Nannetta, Ford’s daughter who he is in love with against her father’s wishes.

After the interval – and in a stable setting – Rupert the horse appears and just by nibbling some hay upstages all around him. Subsequently I really was concerned by Falstaff appearing in the Windsor Great Park scene astride him. Ambroglio Maestri is a tall bulky Falstaff needing little or no extra padding for his role – perhaps one of the reasons for his great success in the part – but I feared for the poor horse and the description of him in the surtitles ‘triple chinned, horse crippler’ seemed a bit too true. Whether this made Maestri uncomfortable – or whether Carsen just ran out of ideas – but until the final tableaux when everyone sits down at a wedding supper, his characterisation and the production seemed to stutter onwards, as if under-rehearsed. It was again all milking Richard Jones’s ‘back catalogue’ in its use of tables as a ‘runway’ for Nannetta to walk down in her bridal gown as ‘Queen of the fairies’ and for a clearly reluctant looking Falstaff to roll along being tormented by cutlery-wielding cloaked horned figures (very unoriginal costumes here from Brigitte Reiffenstuel) ready to ‘feed’ on the glutton. But ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ – sorry, wrong Shakespeare! – as Nannetta and Fenton get Ford’s blessing and Falstaff accepts the life-changing experience he has had.

Ambrogio Maestri mostly sang very well as Falstaff;  his is a rather full, stentorian baritone voice but with a reasonably varied tonal palette and well-supported legato. He never overdid the comedy and for the most part was very convincing in his aristocratic self-delusion. His performance was all the better for this semblance of restraint. The tall and short Lukas Jakobski and Alasdair Elliot were a fun pairing as Pistol and Bardolph, but Carlo Bosi seemed an unnecessary import from Italy as Dr Caius. Dalibor Jenis was a charismatic Ford, suitably infuriated by his wife’s perceived deceit;  Joel Prieto and Amanda Forsythe were a sweet-voiced and enchanting pair of lovers; Fenton and Nannetta had an engaging stage presence. The rest of the women did very well as an ensemble with Ana María Martínez an eager and spirited Alice Ford, Marie-Nicole Lemieux a fruity-toned and blowsy Mistress Quickly and ex-Jette Parker young artist (like Lukas Jakobski) Kai Rüütel was a charmingly conspiratorial Meg Page. An enthusiastic chorus sang wonderfully as usual.

Since the long-lasting Zeffirelli Falstaff the two intermediate new stagings have not had any great longevity at Covent Garden and I suspect this one will fare no better. The production team had a mixed reception and I suspect it was those higher in the theatre that would have got little from the stage pictures without binoculars who were booing. I certainly recommend those who want to see this Falstaff to watch one of the outdoor live broadcasts to get the best from it … unless they can afford a stalls seat. My final comment was that it was one of the noisiest productions I have heard for a long time; the creaking as the ‘wood-panelling’ as it opened to reveal a starry backdrop for the final scene in Windsor Great Park had to be heard to be believed, and all the clumping of the female singers – clearly unused to performing in stiletto heels – got quite wearisome. But apart from all that, it was better than I expected and I might now be a ‘convert’ and am actually looking forward to my next Falstaff!

Jim Pritchard