"That is no country for old men," begins Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium, a poignant ode to old man’s waning, twilight years, similar to themes in Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, written during the period in which he conceptualized his Casa di Riposo per Musicisti Giuseppe Verdi di Milano, a retirement home for old artists designed by architect Camillo Boito, brother of Arrigo, who'd penned the opera’s playful libretto.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Mistress Quickly) and Nicola Alaimo (Falstaff) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Mistress Quickly) and Nicola Alaimo (Falstaff)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Inspired by his fondness for Shakespearean narratives and mindful of the great opera buffa traditions, when Verdi's commedia lirica in three acts premiered in 1893, musically it was a bold, modern stab with its variegated orchestral textures and allusions.

Under director Robert Carsen's youthfully-blithe production, there are no memento mori, no backward glances, no melancholy remembrances, no sense that death's waiting around the corner for the fat, bawdy, vain knight. Englishness is a polished gesture for the Falstaff heard around the world, merit to an enthusiastic coproduction with the Royal Opera House, the Canadian Opera Company, the Metropolitan Opera and the Dutch National Opera.

Here, Carsen’s comprehensive atmospheres and coherent fables are alluringly fresh, backed by a crew with great synergy and well-informed ideas. Curtain rising to The Garter Inn, Paul Steinberg's backdrop of richly-stained wainscoting becomes protagonist. Falstaff dictates his entourage from his throne – an enormous wood-framed bed – crowning pilfered room-service carts. Small details cue the knight’s gluttonous, slovenly habits – buttons and silk sashes have come undone, and spilled food has saturated deep stains over askance room service carts.

Eva Mei (Alice) and Nicola Alaimo (Falstaff) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Eva Mei (Alice) and Nicola Alaimo (Falstaff)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Steinberg's atmospheres continued to convince in Act II. Ford's house was set in a Fifties-inspired kitchen, a retro-time capsule of American kitsch in a distinct shade of green so charming that the anglophile, Shakespearean inconsistencies hardly mattered.

Costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel were marked by a similar patchwork. Inspired by feminine, late-Fifties/early-Sixties silhouettes, hemlines flirted past knees and rich bourgeois accessories ranged from low-heeled footwear to embroidered, pillbox hats. Jacquard silk dresses variegated with English flashes – natty tweeds, Argyle socks, tartan kilts and horse riding boots.

The apotheosis of Carsen's accord was through Act II royal woodland poetry of Herne's Oak, dreamily-lit by Peter van Praet. Fenton's "Dal labbro il canto" was illuminated under blue moonlight and a star-punctuated firmament. Shadow-play was elevated to sophisticated art during the fairy enchantment. The chorus of masked elves, witches and nymphs in woodland camouflage vestments and antler-capped headgear assembled a kinetic tapestry across moonlit wainscoting. Later, rich copper lit the final fugue marriage scene, and house lights slowly warmed during the "Tutto nel mondo è burla" punchline.

Carsen's buoyant direction meshed with Nicola Alaimo's idea of Sir John, appealing but invariant, with little aspect of the bumbling bourgeois or the destitute aristocrat. Leeched of melancholy, there was no bittersweet nostalgia or remembrance. Sprightly and breezy, grey whiskers plucked, little remorse or sorrow, one wondered if it was a Falstaff turned blind and dumb to his colorful past. Although "Ehi! Taverniere!... Mondo ladro" lacked snarl, growl and grumble, Alaimo was underpinned by vocal security, easy stage manner and crystalline pronunciation.

Nicola Alaimo (Falstaff) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Nicola Alaimo (Falstaff)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Massimo Cavalletti’s jealous Ford was generous. As Fontana in city-slick gold lamé adorned with a Stetson, cowboy boots and a greasy mullet, his powerful “È sogno? o realtà?” monologue was in solid interpretation and glossy baritone. Carlo Bosi's Doctor Caius and Falstaff’s entourage – Patrizio Saudelli's Bardolfo and Giovanni Battista Parodi's Pistola – were equally meritable.

Leading the Merry Wives of Windsor, Eva Mei enchanted great elegance and feminine grace as Alice over a lovely lyric soprano that ran pleasantly piquant. Laura Polverelli's Meg was noteworthy between Marie-Nicole Lemieux's Mistress Quickly in stunning, well-placed timbres. The mezzo victoriously trod the thin line between buffo and commedia lirica during her “Reverenza” Act II flourish.

Perky-ponytailed Eva Liebau as Nannetta brought a mature, lyric-tinged warmth, but paired against Francesco Demuro's Fenton with metallic-edged middles, the couple was unable to affect the impulsiveness of young love's drunken infatuations.

An illuminated manuscript under Daniele Gatti drew out expression often buried by quicksilver fumes and melancholy smoke. From monologue to fugue, he encouraged every tonality and tempo, from broad to slender, from whisper to roar – pianissimos so delicate they were merely suggestions, equally adept at bone-rattling fortes and swollen tremolos. The orchestra responded meticulously under breakneck tempos, such as the Act I final concertati. With such riotous expression, singers were sometimes rendered monochrome – even Carsen's pleasant polish was often chilled. Sorgete! Ombre serene!