In 1887, after 16 years of silence, Verdi presented his work Otello at La Scala in Milan, which immediately became a tremendous success. Riding on the wave of this success, composer and poet Arrigo Boito started trying, with caution and diplomacy, to convince the old Maestro to write another opera. It took another couple of years before Boito mustered his courage and sent a draft of a new libretto to Verdi, based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. The bait was well chosen: Verdi did not resist to the temptation of putting his art to the test in his comedy Falstaff, after a lifetime of works dedicated to tragic stories and devastating passions (his only previous attempt to humour, Un giorno di regno in 1840, had been a resounding fiasco).

© Matthias Baus (2018)

The character of Falstaff was ideally suited to Verdi, with his mixture of tragic and comic aspects, and his cynical philosophy; Verdi’s last opera finally premiered in 1893, with great success, the crowning element of the incredible career of the composer.

Mario Martone’s production, at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, moves the action to the modern day, in a city which may very well be Berlin itself, with its graffiti, shady clubs and anachronistic characters. Sir John Falstaff becomes an ageing free spirit, spending his time in a sort of community centre – “Garter Inn” – together with fishy characters with alternative lifestyles, while the merry wives belong to a class of nouveau riches. In this interpretation, the tension between the decadent aristocracy and the rising bourgeois society is lost: the only driver for the events seems to be a diffuse ennui plaguing the rich middle class, so that Falstaff’s shenanigans become a welcome distraction from utter boredom. This actually worked fairly well in telling the story, and even the last scene, set outside a BDSM club, with all the characters dressed in latex (costumes by Ursula Patzak), was engaging and as believable as any Falstaff’s finale ever was.

Jürgen Sacher (Dr Caius) and Alfredo Daza (Ford)
© Matthias Baus (2018)

Zubin Mehta conducted the Berlin Staatskapelle after Daniel Barenboim cancelled (probably because of another commitment: the concert for the Holocaust Memorial Day); he was greeted with great affection by the audience, and gave us a sparkling, brilliant reading of Verdi's magnificent score. The orchestration in Falstaff is much more than a tapestry for the singers: the instruments converse with the voices, they laugh, they mock, at times they almost seem to gesticulate. The Staatskapelle was superb in this rendering of every nuance of the score, and Mehta was awarded great cheers at the curtain call. (It was kind of funny to spot Barenboim attending the performance from his usual stage box.)

The cast was uniformly good and did justice to the score, showing remarkable musical style, acting abilities and perfect Italian pronunciation (many singers were native speakers). The ensembles were a delight: the first act finale in particular was exhilaration: a firework of sillabato, with perfect rhythm. Lucio Gallo sang the title role: his smooth, elegant baritone was strong and beautiful, his interpretation hilarious, as he played the over-confident ladies’ man. His willowy physique was, on the contrary, not much on point with the character, which is defined throughout the libretto as “fat, obese, a whale, an ox”, with countless jokes based on his gigantic size. It’s not an easy problem to solve, without an outmoded fat suit, but it was a bit disconcerting.

Barbara Frittoli (Alice Ford) and Katharina Kammerloher (Meg Page)
© Matthias Baus (2018)

Alice Ford was sung by Barbara Frittoli, whose agile soprano showed some signs of weariness; nevertheless, her performance was remarkable and very enjoyable. Her husband, Ford, was Alfredo Daza, with a well projected, secure baritone. The two young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, were Nadine Sierra and Francesco Demuro, two of the best singers of the performance: their love duets were delightful. Sierra stole everybody’s heart with her interpretation of the young, spirited girl, and her aria “Sul fil d'un soffio etesio” was one of the highlights of the evening. Daniela Barcellona was perfect as a stately Mistress Quickly, her deep, well supported mezzo irresistible as she leaned into the comedic spirit.

Cristina Damian as Meg, Jürgen Sacher as Doctor Caius, Stephan Rügamer as Bardolfo and Jan Martiník as Pistola completed a great cast, which gave a marvellous rendition of the finale. Verdi impressively smashes the fourth wall right before the last number (“another chorus, and then we go to dinner”), choosing a Baroque paradigm for his final words: a grandiose, contrapuntal fugue that weaves the voices into the composer’s artistic vision: “The whole world is a jest”.