There is enough food and drink in Robert Carsen’s Falstaff to stock the larder at Windsor Castle. Curtain up reveals wine-stained food trolleys choking Falstaff’s room at the Garter Inn. In the hotel restaurant, the merry wives plot his comeuppance fortified by technicolour cocktails and frilly puddings. The Fords’ vast, pastel-tinted kitchen, straight out of a 1950s Woman’s Own spread, is where Alice Ford deflects the randy knight’s attentions with a freshly roasted turkey. There is even a live horse enjoying some crunchy hay. Abounding in gastronomic detail, Paul Steinberg’s lavish sets also make the most of the hunting allusions in the libretto and Verdi’s score. Costume designer Brigitte Reifenstuel elaborates on these two themes, dressing the women in ice-cream colours and making dramatic use of hunting pinks.

Dutch National Opera, Falstaff © BAUS
Dutch National Opera, Falstaff
© BAUS

No less detailed is Carson’s beat-by-beat direction of every single person on stage. The characters dart and dodge around each other, performing slapstick sequences which crest into full farcical mayhem at the end of Act II, when Falstaff is dunked in ditchwater. The soloists, eight of whom are Italian, revelled in the Boccaccian brilliance of Arrigo Boito’s text. After all, Boito’s libretto played a big part in inspiring Verdi to write an intricate score that crackles and sparkles with sound imitation: human, animal and inanimate.

At the centre of this maelstrom of activity is the marvel that is Ambrogio Maestri’s Sir John Falstaff. Mr Maestri has sung this role over 200 times, including the first three incarnations of this five-company co-production. As the slovenly aristocrat whose girth is inversely proportional to the depth of his pockets, Mr Maestri is towering and agile, dancer-like when seducing and persuading, hulking and menacing when stung to anger. There is no facet of the optimistic antihero that his versatile baritone does not hone to twinkling clarity. He growls and guffaws, cajoles and hectors, fumes and flares without the slightest hint of strain. Falstaff’s reminiscence of his whippet-thin youth, “Quand’ero paggio”, daintily trips off his tongue in a fine mezza-voce, while he can also effortlessly flood the house at full volume. For many opera lovers the words “Verdi baritone” conjure up exactly Mr Maestri’s kind of voice: a smooth sound capable of lyricism, vocal fretwork and rafter-rattling volume, decanted with eloquent Italianate phrasing.

Dutch National Opera, Falstaff © BAUS
Dutch National Opera, Falstaff
© BAUS

As his main romantic and financial target, Alice Ford, Fiorenza Cedolins was film-star glamorous in satin and furs. Her soft-grained voice tends to thin and harden at the top, but its lower range is warm and expressive, as she showed in her animated Herne the Hunter ghost tale, “Quando il rintocco della mezzanotte”. Massimo Cavalletti, a natural actor with a full-bodied, evenly produced baritone, was the picture of dapper respectability as Ford and flamboyantly disguised in stetson and bolo tie as Fontana. His Act II scene with Mr Maestri was perfectly synchronised theatre, and he followed it with a fiery and beautifully sung jealousy monologue (“E' sogno? O realtà?”).

Maite Beamont was a perky Meg Page, her airy mezzo-soprano, somewhat fluttery on top, contrasting nicely with the deep claret of Daniela Barcellona’s Mistress Quickly. Mrs Quickly’s vocal range is perfect for showing off Ms Barcellona’s reverberating chest voice and her tall, clumsily flirtatious matron was a worthy counterweight to Mr Maestri’s strutting Falstaff. Suspending the flurry of action with gorgeous lyricism, Lisette Oropesa and Paolo Fanale made a pair of young lovers an audience loves to root for. With her beautifully floated, vibrant soprano Ms Oropesa was simply bewitching in Nannetta's Fairy Queen aria, “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio”, while Mr Fanale’s sunlight-infused lyric tenor sounded ideal for the ardent Fenton, a fresh-faced charmer waitering at the Garter Inn.

The vocal ensembles were enhanced by two excellent character tenors, Carlo Bosi as the sanctimonious Doctor Caius and Patrizio Saudelli as a put-upon but resilient Bardolph. He and his partner in two-bit thievery, Giovanni Battista Parodi’s doltish Pistol, delighted as Falstaff’s athletically comic cronies.

In the pit Daniele Gatti led a seamless Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, unflagging in the forward-motion of Verdi’s quicksilver score. The brass and wind sections blazed with accurate swagger in the emphatic passages, complemented by full-blooded strings. Yet in light-footed moments, such as in the loquacious plotting scene in Act I, the orchestra sounded somewhat weighed down and lacked the brio of the proceedings on stage. The desired buoyancy was achieved after the intermission with the galloping introduction to Falstaff’s self-pitying Act III monologue. As Sir John proceeded to medicate his bruised ego with wine, the RCO unfurled its renowned sumptuous sound. From then on Maestro Gatti held the audience captive with an unbroken atmospheric narrative. The Chorus of the Dutch National Opera was equally impressive, soft as mist in the fairy music and with razor-sharp vocal attack as goading goblins. In the final scene, soloists and chorus are transformed into Nannetta and Fenton’s glittering wedding party. Implicating the audience in their hymn to self-mockery, “Tutto nel mondo è burla”, the singers joined forces with the orchestra for a spectacular finale fugue, which Maestro Gatti brought off like a flawlessly primed fireworks display.

****1