In the last few years, the new productions unveiled at the Staatsoper’s Easter Festtage have been of a distinctly Germanic bent. For 2018, however, Daniel Barenboim turned his hand to Verdi’s final masterpiece, with the Italian director Mario Martone – best known for his film work – enlisted for the staging. Michael Volle, Hans Sachs in Bayreuth last summer, here tackles the Fat Knight for the first time – a character who, also unlucky in love in his own way, offers wisdom and resignation of very different sort.

Michael Volle (Sir John Falstaff) © Matthias Baus
Michael Volle (Sir John Falstaff)
© Matthias Baus

In Martone’s production, this is also a Falstaff very different from the fat-suited norm. The director updates the action to the present day, pitting a dying counterculture against an ascendant nouvelle richesse. Falstaff, no false belly in sight, is an ageing rebel in dodgy sideburns and leather jacket. He hangs out outside a bar in dingy corner of town surrounded by young hippies – during his exchange with Daniella Barcellona’s fruity Mrs Quickly, these kids noisily spray anti-war messages onto a banner. The Fords live in a chic new town house of which we see only a gymnasium, swimming pool and butler. These Merry Wives lounge around scantily clad in the sun, cut-off from the less savoury elements of society by a high wall.

Barbara Frittoli (Alice Ford) and Katharina Kammerloher (Meg Page) © Matthias Baus
Barbara Frittoli (Alice Ford) and Katharina Kammerloher (Meg Page)
© Matthias Baus

Margherita Palli does a good job with the sets, but they are hardly attractive, and for the Herne Oak scene we are expected to make do with an old industrial tower in a run-down area that seems to serve as some sort of outdoor fetish club. Couples and threesomes contort themselves into increasingly uncomfortable looking configurations; a large portion of costume designer Ursula Patzak’s budget seems to have gone on skimpy latex. Martone includes a few good gags here as elsewhere, but against such a background there’s little that can be done to create the sense of magic and mystery that the scene should evoke.

Jürgen Sacher (Dr Caius), Bruno Sandow and Norbert Schallau (supporting) and Alfredo Daza (Ford)
Jürgen Sacher (Dr Caius), Bruno Sandow and Norbert Schallau (supporting) and Alfredo Daza (Ford)

Falstaff too feels far less rounded as a character, so to speak. Robbed of the chivalric pretensions that add so much to the comedy, his likability is less secure, the sense of who he is and what motivates him a little less clear. There is nothing to link his world with that of Alice, Meg and Co., so one wonders why they would have anything to do with him. He's uprooted by the production, but not really presented in any revealing new light. Volle’s artistry is never in doubt, though; his comic timing often excellent and his charisma gets him a long way. He arguably cuts too fine a figure, though, despite copious slouching, and doesn’t chew on the words with the relish that some of the great Falstaffs do. One notices a lack of legato as well, and misses Italianate warmth and bounce in the timbre. No doubt, though, this is a portayal that will gain in richness as it develops. 

Barcellona’s Quickly is more than a match for him, and there’s a charming turn from Nadine Sierra as Nannetta, matched by a lovely Fenton from Franceso Demuro – irresistibly sunny of voice and disposition. There’s sturdy work, too, from Staatsoper stalwarts: a suave Ford from Alfredo Daza, and a lively Bardolfo and Pistola from Stephan Rügamer and Jan Martiník, dressed, a little predictably perhaps, as bikers. Barbara Frittoli's Alice still has plenty of vocal glamour, but she doesn’t quite seem able to fill out her lines in the way that Barenboim wants, her soaring phrases never quite achieving lift-off.

Michael Volle (Sir John Falstaff) and cast © Matthias Baus
Michael Volle (Sir John Falstaff) and cast
© Matthias Baus

For her music – and for Verdi’s more generous melodic outpourings – the conductor admittedly broadens his tempi to quasi-Wagnerian expansiveness. But he offers irresistible energy elsewhere in a reading that benefits enormously from the rapport he has with his players. The Staatskapelle’s sound is rounded and meaty, their playing is virtuosic, quick-witted and brilliantly light on its feet, able to respond to conducting that reacts with minute details to the score’s shifts. Though Martone’s production is not as satisfying, it plays its part in a enjoyable show that lets the genius of Verdi’s final great comedy shine through.