Oh what a night! Made by the hands of masters in the courtyard of the Archevêché, this Falstaff didn't allow our feet to touch the ground for an instant. Unquestionably, Falstaff sees it right: "il diavolo cavalca sull’arco di un violino". It's an immaculate production worthy of the great evenings in the Aix Festival.

Christopher Purves (Falstaff)
© Monika Rittershaus

The curtain rises. Falstaff (Christopher Purves) is cooking. The set is sparse. The walls are papered with art deco motifs in the retro style of a country inn. The stage is no sooner set than we are engulfed in the dishes of words and sounds that Falstaff is concocting in his ovens at the centre of the stage. Then the music whirrs, soars and crumbles, rolls with glee and panache. It's rounded, it's generous, it's mouth-watering. The brass shines and sparkles, and there we are, on board for two and a half hours of madness. Like Verdi's work, Barrie Kosky's staging and Daniele Rustioni's conducting of the music are jewels of clockwork. Everything is aligned between the pit and the stage with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker, down to the tapping of Mistress Quickly's nails on the table (the excellent Daniela Barcellona) in her meeting with the fat man, who finds his exact equivalent in the pit with deliciously pianissimo: it sets the rhythm and colour of the whole scene.

Falstaff at the Aix Festival
© Monika Rittershaus

Everything is meticulous, perfectly constructed, from the backgrounds (the atmosphere of an inn with faded customers contrasts with a Falstaff overexcited by the idea of conquering Alice) to the out-of the phase extras (an excellent construction by Didier Bourguignon of the non-speaking role of the innkeeper, straight out of a Christoph Marthaler show, exhausted by the bustle around him). It's all designed – as it often is with Kosky – like a true comic book: the exits and entrances, the transformations (hilarious things are done with wigs), the ensemble pieces, the theatrics.... One laughs to see Kosky mischievously resolve musical ruptures with staging ideas, like the aria "quand'ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk", scored leggerissimo and ppp by Verdi, which barely emerges from a punch by Alice into the stomach of an over-enterprising Falstaff.

Falstaff at the Aix Festival
© Monika Rittershaus

A good rhythm on stage gives rise to contrasts, like the wonderful scenes with the endearing Nannetta et Fenton (Giulia Semenzato and Juan Francisco Gatell) whose roles as young first lovers are only accentuated in such a supercharged ensemble. What poetry and lightness in whispering Boccaccio to us: "bocca baciata non perde ventura" (the kissed mouth doesn't lose its flavour); the singers and the Opéra de Lyon Orchestra gave us great moments of sensitivity. The difficult-to-stage basket scene is rounded, fluid and irresistible; the scene of the fairies, delightfully enchanting, brings the evening to a marvellous close. The only disappointment is in the culinary interludes (long lists of recipes recited emphatically at the microphone with the curtain down) are less than well declaimed, even if the idea of slowing down all the machinery between acts is completely understandable.

Falstaff at the Aix Festival
© Monika Rittershaus

Such an achievement cannot work without a perfect arrangement of each of the clockwork elements. Almost out of place in this role of jealous husband, Stéphane Degout (Ford) slips mischievously into this cuckold's role and his roundness of tone and voice contrasts perfectly with the usual easy authority of Ford's character; he even becomes touching, especially in his "È sogno? o realtà" which falls on him as if from the sky. The women's quartets are impeccably precise, singing music that is dauntingly difficult. The comic duo of Bardolfo (Rodolphe Briand) and Pistola (Antonio Di Matteo), truly dirty and nasty, works wonderfully to keep Falstaff on the move, constantly trying to redeem himself: the voices are very well suited to the job. Finally, Purves, the master of the evening, is impeccable in this groovy, physical and crazy Falstaff; faced with such a performance, one is almost ashamed to note a few over stretched high notes (in "L'Onore") and a lack of vocal stamina on certain long phrases.

The mastery of this production sits in striking contrast to the previous evening's Figaro. Here, the dishes served are fine, delectable, irresistible. And one wants another helping.


Translated from French by David Karlin

*****