There was an end of term feel about this revival of Falstaff at the Royal Opera, with many singers returning to a favourite role and imparting a spirited sense of fun. Robert Carsen’s production, shunting the action to the new Elizabethan era of the 1950s, has been a favourite since it opened here in 2012. From its opening C major chord, erupting rudely from the pit, to its “devil of a fugue” (to steal from Elgar) finale, it both sparkles with irrepressible energy and basks in a rich autumnal glow.
Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s tweeds and scarlet fox-hunting jackets replace traditional doublet and hose, with Falstaff installed as a guest in the oak-panelled Garter Inn, running up an horrendous bill. From its monster-sized bed to the gentleman’s club lined with equine portraits à la Stubbs to the ‘all mod cons’ kitchen at the Fords, Paul Steinberg’s sets are handsome, even if the panels still part rather creakily for the starlit scene representing Windsor Forest. The staging brims over with deft touches: Bardolph and Pistol half-inching cutlery from the tea-room; lovesick Nannetta comfort eating ice cream; Falstaff carving a tiny slice of chicken for Alice before depositing the rest of the carcass on his own plate. I’ve rarely heard a Covent Garden crowd chortle so merrily. Even Rupert the horse got a laugh.
Sir Bryn Terfel has a long relationship with this opera. I saw him sing Ford opposite Donald Maxwell’s Falstaff in Peter Stein’s staging for Welsh National Opera early in the 1990s before he assumed the role of the amorous fat knight himself. In 1999, his Falstaff reopened the house in Graham Vick’s bawdy, primary colours and he later recorded it with Claudio Abbado. He’s also sung in Carsen’s production before, at co-producer Teatro alla Scala, but this is his first tilt at it here, stepping into the ample shoes of Ambrogio Maestri. It’s a reading that has matured and is very funny, even if playing the fat man seems a bit exaggerated – waddling around, struggling to bend down to retrieve a napkin. Maestri, for all his natural padding, is very nimble and his Falstaff has a more natural twinkle. But Terfel really relishes the text, from the quick patter about his youthful post as a slender page to the Duke of Norfolk to his vinous ruminations after his unceremonious ducking in the Thames. His bass-baritone is flinty-edged now and there’s the occasional thunderous roar, but Terfel’s Falstaff is still a cherishable rogue.