Stepford wives and antlers / Falstaff / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 19 May 2012

22 May

I have to admit that Falstaff is not a work I’m terribly familiar with and in general comedic operas don’t quite excite me. So seeing it live was far from a priority, but as I find Robert Carsen’s productions interesting and managed to find a mid week return for Orchestra Circle, the outlay of £28 was a most agreeable way to satisfy the mild curiosity I had about this work and staging.

Covent Garden has had two previous attempts at Falstaff since the popular success of Zeffirelli’s production which was killed off in 1978. The previous two exist on DVD and can be watched for comparison. Carsen chose the all too popular 1950s as the era to site his production. There are two different versions of the decade visible on stage, the world of wood panelled country house hotels and gentlemen’s clubs for Sir John Falstaff and a world of exciting, women’s lib through Formica, highly preened modernity. The mix very much reminded me of the look that Stephen Daldry’s The Hours had. The old brigade collides with life’s necessities (paying the bills in Falstaff’s case) and the new brigade calls the shots through their newly found affluence.

Verdi’s score as conducted by Daniele Gatti was transparent with wide dynamics and unstoppable propulsion. That doesn’t mean that the singers were left to fend for themselves…far from. He was constantly giving them cues and had constant eye contact with all of them. He was even singing along some of the entrances of individual characters which was rather endearing.

I was in total awe of  Ambroglio Maestri’s nuanced performance, balancing the comedic exterior of the character with a knowing sense of the internal turmoil. Anytime the mask of the “seducer” slipped he would reveal his vulnerability. His singing was as powerful as I’ve heard in any Italian opera and his more lachrymose passages were sung with great subtlety and warmth. Of course it is also amusing that he needed no padding to portray the over-indulged knight of the realm in all his seedy glory. He was also great as an ensemble artist, bouncing off the other singers and having some memorable moments with Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s sprightly Mistress Quickly.

Lemieux was a total joy. Clearly Carsen asked for a super camp take on Mistress Quickly and he got exactly that. Lemieux gave us great physical comedy, especially in her meeting scene with Falstaff in Act Two. Where her curtsies become so low that good old Falstaff has more than an eyeful of her ample cleavage. Also she had one of the most excellent wardrobes of the production, the amazing flower adorned hat in Scene 2 of the first act should really have its own postcode! Clearly Brigitte Reiffenstuel enjoyed dressing her and the other ladies immensely. The tailoring of all their clothes looked as sharp as one would expect and even the footwear was equally fashionable and colourful.

The rest of the ladies were all great as an ensemble and clearly were having a great time poking fun at the men and were full of whimsy and sparkle. My only reservation would rest on the size of Amanda Forsythe’s voice, which is incredibly beautiful but underpowered for the size of the House.

The rest of the men were a good ensemble even if they did not set my world alight. The only one exception would be the rough tone of Dalibor Jenis, who especially dressed like a cowboy cliché during his meeting with Falstaff in Act Two he seemed to be struggling for anything above the passaggio.

Carsen’s comic flair was totally on the money with some very thoughtful touches in the staging and the set. For instance when Falstaff appears in Alice Ford’s beige/yellow Formica kitchen he brings her a fox’s tail in full huntsman outfit, while in the background on Alice’s white wall tiles two galloping horse ornaments are adding equine references. It’s that level of detail that made a few lapses in taste very annoying.

On the opening stage picture while Falstaff is in his country house hotel room in his dirty long johns the tables with the detritus of several days of room service are strewn all over the room. But the first thing my eye was led to, were the huge castors supporting the tables. It seemed silly to have beautiful silver and flowers on tables this obviously ready to roll off for the next stage setting. Surely there must have been a better way to make this detail work more in keeping with the rest of the era evoked. Once I concentrated on the castors the more the illusion of wood panelling stopped working and all I could see was just paint. Another obvious silly mistake was the cases of wine (which according to the libretto it’s from Cyprus) the stacked up cases were clearly labelled Petrus.  It may seem mean to point out such minuscule failings but in a production this detailed they really matter.

The way he have a frozen moment in time at The Garter Inn in Scene 2 of Act One was a simple but beautiful way to direct attention to the amorous couple, by freezing the movement of the waiters and plunging the stage in dark blue light. Not highly original but very effective.

Thankfully from my seat I missed most of the contribution of Rupert the horse in Act Three…far too many members of the audience were too busy giggling at a horse when Maestri was much more interesting to listen and watch…a sad moment when the audience falls for a silly gimmick. At least Falstaff gets to ride the horse on his way to Windsor’s Royal Park…

The conclusion of the Act Three unfortunately sags under the weight (terrible pun, I know) of the plot holes of Boito’s libretto. Also Carsen’s idea for Nanetta to be carried on one of those tables (with the hideous castors) was a far too predictable a solution. But the charming transformation from evening at the Park to dinner time with Falstaff was very quick and effective…a particularly practical and stylish touch was using the chorus and singers’ helmet/antlers as quasi trophies on the side walls of the dining room. With Falstaff depositing his at the front of the stage.

All in all, this staging is a great adaptation with a sleek 1950s look that gives off sparks of comedy and some truly exceptional playing from the orchestra made it a truly memorable evening. The question of course is whether this production will stick around at Covent Garden or will join all the previous casualties. If a future revival has as good an ensemble of singers then it may survive. But hope some of the details will be worked on and unify the overall look even more.  If you have the chance go along to one of the big screen broadcasts on the 30 May, I can imagine the staging will look fantastic on camera and Maestri and Lemieux’s facial expressions will be something to behold. Of course a DVD/BluRay release won’t be too far behind.

Movingly this performance was dedicated to the memory of the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who died a day earlier.

Some tweets from the evening

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