Bryn Terfel’s Wonderful, World-Weary Sir John Falstaff in Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Verdi: Falstaff: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, Fabio Luisi (conductor), Zurich Opera, 27.9.2015 (RP)



Alice Ford: Serena Farnocchia
Nannetta: Mirella Bunoaica
Mistress Quickly: Judit Kutasi
Meg Page: Judith Schmid
Sir John Falstaff: Bryn Terfel
Ford: Roman Burdenko
Fenton: Javier Camarena
Dr Caius: Airam Hernandez
Bardolfo: Dmitry Ivanchey
Pistola: Dimitri Pkhaladze


Producer: Sven-Eric Bechtolf
Stage Design: Rolf Glittenberg
Lighting Design: Jürgen Hoffmann
Chorus Master: Ernst Raffelsberger

Bryn Terfel was born to play Falstaff: it’s a role that he has literally grown into. I was in the house in 1999 when he sang Falstaff to open the newly renovated Royal Opera House in London. At the time, some thought he was too young for the part. Then, he was a fresh voiced, lusty young Falstaff. Now, he is just as lustful, the voice is still in prime condition, but his characterization has become far richer and more complex. Even more importantly, the twinkle in his eye is still there. Bored with his existence, he rouses himself to woo once again because he is short on funds. His self confidence knows no bounds, and even defeat is taken in stride. He is still Sir John Falstaff, and those ladies just don’t know what they are missing out on. Other Falstaffs may evoke more laughs, but few as much empathy as does Terfel’s Sir John.

Javier Camarena in the role of Fenton was pure luxury casting. Since appearing in the premiere of this production in 2011, he has become the stuff of legend. He’s one of only three singers (Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Flórez are the other two) to sing an encore at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in recent memory, just last year when he brought down the house in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. His is a particularly warm, bronze-like lyric tenor, which he lavished upon Fenton’s third act aria, “Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola.” There are few lovelier moments in opera than Nannetta responding to Fenton’s “Lips that are kissed lose none of their allure” with “Indeed, they renew it, like the moon.” At the age of 80, Verdi summoned up the tenderness, passion and magic of young love in just a few measures of music.

In the role of Nannetta, Mirella Bunoaica was as lovely to behold visually as she was vocally. Unfortunately, the promise afforded by her beautiful, sustained high notes in her brief exchanges with Camerena in the first two acts was not fulfilled in the third. In “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio,” where, dressed as the Fairy Queen, she instructs her helpers in the mischief that is to follow, Bunoaica’s voice faded and lacked presence. Nonetheless, she is a young talent to watch.

Serena Farnocchia was an elegant Alice Ford, singing with pure, beautiful tone, not so much joining in the high jinks as orchestrating them. In her hands, Verdi’s Alice Ford is a close cousin to Mozart’s Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro. A former participant in the Zurich Opera’s International Opera Studio and now a house regular, Judit Kutasi was a very funny Dame Quickly. Her dark, rich mezzo and excellent timing made her the perfect foil for Terfel’s aging but still quick-witted knight. They both gave as good as they got. Katusi also wore a wonderful hat, which caught the Tudor spirit with its jaunty feather. Judith Schmid, another returning member of the 2011 cast, was her usual pert and delightful self.

The other men of the cast, all young and fresh-voiced, acquitted themselves professionally if without great distinction. They had both the privilege of sharing the stage with Terfel and Camerena, and the inevitable comparisons which must be drawn. Roman Burdenko has a clear ringing baritone but was not a particularly memorable Ford. The same can be said for the Dr Caius of Airam Herandez. Dmitry Ivanchey was funny in his guise as Falstaff’s servant Bardolfo, and a riot dressed as one of the fairies in the final scene. If singing does not pan out for him, he just might consider signing up with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

The production is serviceable, if not particularly imaginative. There is little sense of time and place: Falstaff and his servants are attired in Tudor period garb, with all the others in clothes from the mid-20th century. Alice Ford’s elegant blue dresses are the visual highlight, and Falstaff’s outrageous costumes offer comic relief. Both The Garter, the tavern where Falstaff is ensconced,  and Alice Ford’s parlor are simple white structures, with the latter enlivened by cabbage rose wallpaper. Windsor Park, the setting where both Falstaff and Ford get their comeuppances and the young lovers are united, was awash in dark blue. Falstaff and the men of the chorus wore enormous antler headpieces, while the Fairy Queen and her consort were straight out of Swan Lake, their wands twinkling in the blue night air. It was if all of the stage magic was saved for this scene, and it was therefore all the more special for it.

Fabio Luisi’s approach to Falstaff was not overly subtle, but it was very exciting. In the lyrical passages, such as Nannetta and Fenton’s duets and arias, the orchestra’s playing was as transparent and delicate as one could wish for. It was, however, the outbursts that caught one by surprise, especially those of the woodwinds. They captured the laughter in the music. Falstaff is, after all, a comedy.

Rick Perdian