There is no doubt that Verdi's final opera is a comic masterpiece – some say it is Verdi at his very best – with a finely wrought score, on Arrigo Boito`s precise reduction of Shakespearean plays. However, Falstaff is not my favourite opera and I regret to report that after this staging its position in my personal ranking was not improved. It runs on clockwork precision and originality, but its sudden changes in tempi, bubbly rhythms, swift passages and pumped up singing have never plucked strings in my heart very much.

To get the best out of it, Falstaff has to be performed with an outstanding cast, a great conductor, a refined orchestra and a director capable of creating a perfectly oiled mechanism, with rhythm and an uninterrupted flowing of the narration, and an attuned balance between pit and stage, as in Falstaff, more than elsewhere, the orchestra plays a protagonist's role. Here, though, the conducting was completely subordinate to the stage directions.

This revival of a 2013 staging was a tribute to Luca Ronconi, a well-known Italian theatre director who passed last year, as well as a commemoration of the 400th of Shakespeare's death. The overall result was faultless, in some sense pleasant as singing is concerned, but not amazing, and overall the job did not much enhance Verdi’s work’s comprehension. This was Ronconi’s show, more than Verdi’s.

The director fast-forwarded the story from Elizabethan era to the 1890s. Tiziano Santi’s set represents The Garter Inn as a messy place where a grimy, unkempt Falstaff spends his time drinking wine, insulting both his henchmen and visitors and plotting his mischiefs.

Roberto De Candia sang Falstaff with a properly round baritone, with good low and high notes. He proved to have the necessary personality and histrionic flair to sing the role, as he was at ease with the music and the text. De Candia possesses a fine technique and a consistent and rotund instrument; his rendition of the Fat Knight conveyed a sense of amusement that never made him seem merely an arrogant fool. His monologue after his dumping in the Thames was so expressively poignant that one could easily take the side of poor Sir John.

Fabián Veloz was a Ford burning with jealousy. His voice has a sound baritonal quality, but he overacted and sounded here and there too pushy, though his colour was pleasant and hearable. Ainhoa Arteta, whom I had never heard before, was an elegant, lively Alice. She had the sense of her role and showed superb technique and taste, with a clear tone along with charm and comic effervescence. She teamed up with the other merry wives Meg Page, Mistress Quickly and her daughter Nannetta to teach Falstaff (and her husband Ford) a lesson.

Enkelejda Shkoza gave life to a delightful Mistress Quickly, with personality and aplomb, showing beautiful singing, elegant phrasing  and an incontestable acting style. Marina Comparato sang Meg as efficiently as ever. She seized every opportunity to make her character lively and witty and made her difficult role a pleasant and attractive one.  

Rosa Feola’s soprano was right for Nannetta, as she could sing high notes without effort and presented a beautiful melodic line. With Antonio Poli, Fenton, who sang with youthful grace, the pair of lovers provided a sweet romantic parenthesis in an otherwise hilariously crazy plot. Cristiano Olivieri, Bruno Lazzaretti and Gabriele Sagona really made a big impression as (respectively) Doctor Cajus, Bardolfo and Pistola.

Pinchas Steinberg conducted with a focus not so much on the opera’s comic side and on the leading role of the orchestra, which in Falstaff, is part of the story, not only supports it. On the contrary, all the conductor did was controlling the rhythm and accompanying the action on stage as well as possible. The Orchestra del San Carlo played with their usual great professionalism, but with somewhat raw colours, and, though playing with precision, lacked some nimbleness and humour.