If “all the world’s a jest”, as Sir John Falstaff claims at the end of Verdi’s final operatic masterpiece, then we need players – and directors – with a sense of frivolity. While Robert Carsen’s bed-hopping A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been delighting audiences in Aix-en-Provence, another of his finest creations received its first Covent Garden revival.

Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) © Catherine Ashmore | ROH
Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff)
© Catherine Ashmore | ROH
Carsen’s Falstaff has trotted the globe since its 2012 debut, mostly featuring the reassuringly ample presence of Ambrogio Maestri as the fat knight. Yet not a hint of routine marred the Italian baritone’s performance in this joyous evening, which had me purring with pleasure.

We first spy Falstaff propped up in a trademark Carsen bed, blithely reading his newspaper whilst chaos ensues. Updated to the new Elizabethan era of the 1950s, the production pits the impoverished aristocracy against the nouveau riche. Oak panelled rooms of The Garter Inn – a crusty gentlemen’s club – vie with the yellow and salmon-pink formica of the Fords’ kitchen in Paul Steinberg’s sets. Brigitte Reiffenstuel kits out Falstaff in tweeds and scarlet fox-hunting jacket. Alice Ford revels in the latest fashions, including a gorgeous yellow satin dress, while her husband, when hoodwinking Sir John, sports a jacket and hat which scream Texan oil baron.

Carsen’s attention to detail means that each character is lovingly drawn. Falstaff’s two hangers-on, Bardolph and Pistol, are serial pickpockets, purloining everything from handbags to cutlery to the Fords’ dirty laundry. With Lukas Jakobski’s Pistol twice the height of Alasdair Elliott’s Bardolph, great physical fun is had at every opportunity. Windsor’s Merry Wives Ainhoa Arteta (Alice) and Kai Rüütel (Meg) are a sparky pair, joined by Agnes Zwierko’s busybody Mistress Quickly. Arteta’s bright soprano stood out well in ensemble, but Zwierko’s Quickly ideally needs richer fruity depths. The quartet of ladies was completed by Anna Devin’s scrumptious Nannetta, floating ethereal high notes as the Fairy Queen in an exquisite “Sul fil d'un soffio etesio”. It’s no wonder Luis Gomes’ suave Fenton was so smitten.

Agnes Zwierko (Mistress Quickly), Ainhoa Arteta (Alice), Kai Rüütel (Meg) and Anna Devin (Nannetta) © Catherine Ashmore | ROH
Agnes Zwierko (Mistress Quickly), Ainhoa Arteta (Alice), Kai Rüütel (Meg) and Anna Devin (Nannetta)
© Catherine Ashmore | ROH

Roland Wood sang a terrific Ford, with plenty of bite to his full baritone. The byplay with Maestri when disguised as ‘Master Brook’ was enormous fun, yet his soliloquy when he believes he is being cuckolded had dark intensity, the one point in Verdi’s opera where the comic mask momentarily slips.

Roland Wood (Ford) and Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) © Catherine Ashmore | ROH
Roland Wood (Ford) and Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff)
© Catherine Ashmore | ROH

Casting a shadow over the entire cast – physically and vocally – was Maestri’s Falstaff. His warm baritone has such tremendous strength, yet he was able to scale it down to the softest whisper. Maestri rolled words around his tongue like a man savouring a fine Chianti. Imbibing mulled wine to counter the effects of his Thames ducking, the way Maestri coloured his voice as the alcohol reached the intended spot was glorious. For a large man – no padding required – Maestri is also remarkably nimble, hoofing out a neat cap and cane routine for “Va, vecchio John” and propelling himself across the huge dining table as his punishment is meted out in Act III. All the comic business was spot on, such as when Falstaff carves the chicken to his little ditty recounting being the Duke of Norfolk’s page: he places one slice, then a second, on Alice’s plate; then a moment’s hesitation… before spearing the rest of the joint and depositing it on his own plate!

Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) and Louis © Catherine Ashmore | ROH
Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) and Louis
© Catherine Ashmore | ROH

The only character who was ever going to upstage Maestri was the horse at the tavern. However, Louis – more used to carrying toreadors around the set of Carmen – munched at his hay-bag calmly. We don’t go in for comparisons in a big way at Bachtrack… but I missed old Rupert’s sense of comic timing.

Michael Schønwandt kept things bubbling nicely in the pit, double basses grumbling away in the splendid opening to Act III. Tempi never felt unduly rushed, but everything unfolded at a natural pace, allowing one to enjoy the fine singing and comedy on-stage. When, to steal a phrase from Elgar, the “devil of a fugue” which concludes the opera reached its climax, Falstaff standing proudly on the dining table, I could quite happily have watched the whole thing again. Do large operatic appetites deserve second helpings?