Switzerland Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff – Soloists, Chorus of the Grand Théâtre Geneva and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, John Fiore (conductor), Opéra des Nations, 20.06.2016 (ALL)
Director: Lukas Hemleb
Sets: Alexander Palzin
Costumes: Andrea Schmidt-Futterer
Lighting: Alexander Koppelmann
Falstaff: Paolo Gavanelli (other performances: Franco Vassallo)
Ford: Konstantin Shushakov
Fenton: Medet Chotabaev
Le Docteur Caïus: Raúl Giménez
Pistola: Alexander Milev
Bardolfo: Erlend Tvinnereim
Alice: Maija Kovalevska
Nanetta: Mary Feminear (June 20, 24, 28; other performances: Amelia Scicolone)
Mrs Quickly: Marie-Ange Todorovitch
Meg: Ahlima Mhamdi
The biggest challenge in presenting Verdi’s Falstaff is to find the right balance between young and old, comedy and sadness, words and music. Geneva’s last production for this season had much to command but failed in the end to find this difficult mix.
Much of the issue lay in Lukas Hemleb’s darkish staging. At the center of the stage was an imposing greyish stone for which I could find little purpose or meaning. Characters were white-faced as if straight out of a black and white Italian Toto movie of the 50’s and frequently took cinema-esque poses. There is nothing wrong with highlighting the slapstick elements of the work, but many scenes, and in particular the fairies, were heavy-handed. The merry wives lacked charm, Mrs. Quickly was vulgar and Alice kept posing as if she thought she was a “look-at-me” movie star. Falstaff was reduced to a one-dimension comic figure. There was no tenderness towards this universally-known figure, who like Strauss’s Marschallin and a number of us … has to learn to age gracefully.
While not all was perfect, the musical side had some strong points. John Fiore, who conducted a very strong Parsifal a few years ago, gave us here a rhythmically alert reading full of characterization, capturing the many mercurial moods of the work. The orchestra played well for him, and the string tone actually had more color than usual (when the Swiss Romande Orchestra plays in Victoria Hall). The concluding fugue was well built.
Veteran Paolo Gavanelli has probably lost some lower and higher notes and resorted to some parlando here and there. But he sang the scene with Ford extremely well and throughout the evening, his command of words showed a born actor at ease on stage. By contrast, Konstantin Shushakov’s voice was fresher but did not have the variety of range his senior colleague brought to the score. Mary Feminear’s Nanetta had a nice middle register but struggled with higher notes while Fenton’s Medet Chotabaev should have spent much more time on his phrasing. Marie-Ange Todorovitch’s Mrs. Quickly was a success; the French mezzo had strong notes and used her text intelligently. Meg is less developed than other parts of the opera but Ahlima Mhamdi was quite strong. Finally, Maija Kovalevska’s Alice could have given us a little more charm in “Gaie Comari di Windsor!” but she projected well and had some splendid high notes.
The chorus, one of the assets of the Grand Théâtre, were – unusually – not at their best. They sang too loudly in the last act and upset the balance. Maybe they are having difficulty adapting to the smaller Théâtre des Nations.
The production is that last of this season. The Grand Théâtre will remain in this temporary space next year, which is proving to be quite satisfactory. The next season will start with Massenet’s Manon with Patricia Petibon in the title role and staged by Geneva favorite Olivier Py. The Théâtre will present some classics, such as La Bohème with several young singers. David McVicar will stage Berg’s Wozzeck and David Bösch Così fan Tutte. There will be some rarities, such as Francesco Cavalli’s Il Giasone and Heinrich Marschner’s Der Vampyr. Many talented singers will give recitals: Thomas Hampson, Christian Gerhaher, Karita Matilla, Joyce diDonato … Many reasons to visit the Theâtre des Nations next season.