The most illustrious of operatic careers ends in the most improbable of ways. Verdi ends Falstaff – his last opera – with a full blown classical fugue as all the main characters overlap and meld their voices into a joyous outpouring of “Tutto nel mondo è burla” (all in the world's a joke). In today's Sunday matinee at Budapest's Erkel Theatre, Ambrogio Maestri seemed to infect the rest of the cast with the spirit of the work. The big man in the fat suit has made the role his personal property in recent years, and though he must have performed it hundreds of times by now, the freshness and vigour still exudes from every pore. It's not just Maestri's characterisation that wins you over: it's also the pure quality of the voice. He uses several different voices for comic effect, but his go-to voice is the most ample of smooth baritones, a big cuddly bear of a voice, one that you know could turn to a growl but still a voice that you'd leave your small children with. 

Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) © Péter Rákossy
Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff)
© Péter Rákossy
The other singers weren't quite up to Maestri's star quality, but there were still plenty of voices to enjoy, with the male roles coming off best. Gunyong Na has a baritone with the smoothness to approach Maestri's, although a less ample voice with a harder edge – very suitable for the role of Ford. Péter Balczó sang Fenton attractively: the voice is clear and he achieved a nice heartfelt tone in his Act III aria "Dal labbro il canto". Gábor Géza was an entertainingly bibulous Pistol.

The female voices were more mixed. Bori Keszei sang Nannetta accurately in a light soprano that was nicely weighted and pretty but could have done with an extra touch of sweetness. Bernadett Wiedemann, as Quickly, has a lovely upper register but didn't generate the power lower down. Similarly, Beatrix Fodor as Alice sounded good when singing on her own against light orchestration, but a lack of raw power was exposed when the music thickened out. Especially in the first act, some of the ensemble passages – the female and male quartets and one point where they join – got a little ragged.

Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) © Péter Rákossy
Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff)
© Péter Rákossy

Apart from the imperfection in vocal ensemble, however, conductor Balázs Kocsár didn't put a foot wrong: this was a fine demonstration of how to conduct brightly at a brisk pace but with admirable lightness of touch, without ever overpowering the singers or degenerating into manic excess. In the few places where Verdi lets the pace to drop to allow for a lyrical passage – either a romantic one for Fenton and Nannetta or a reflective one for Falstaff – the singers were given plenty of time to breathe and the orchestra space to shape their phrases.

Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) and Gunyong Na (Ford) © Péter Rákossy
Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) and Gunyong Na (Ford)
© Péter Rákossy

Arnaud Bernard creates a setting that's very similar to the Robert Carsen production currently doing the rounds at Covent Garden and the Met, with an English gentleman's club in Act I, 1950s TV sitcom in Act II and stags' horns adorning many heads in Act III. There are some key differences, however. Where Carsen's designer Paul Steinberg makes full use of a deep stage, Bernard flattens out the space, filling our sightlines with hunting trophies in Act I or with a huge 2-D version of Herne's Oak in Act III. The TV sitcom feel is prominent, with the opera opened by a freeze frame of Sir John seated within an ancient TV set and closed by a similar freeze frame of the cast. Various bits of studio gear litter the outer areas of the stage. This leads to a slight misfire: in Act II, Bernard makes Alice's home into a sound stage within the overall set, but the singers fail to respect the imaginary walls, so we don't really get the sense of when they're on- or off-camera: the concept isn't really carried through.

Slapstick is difficult to carry off in opera and, especially seen from close up, timing wasn't perfect. But everyone performed with plenty of verve, and you have to admire Maestri not only for letting himself be trussed up in a laundry chest but also for being unceremoniously rolled along the stage in Act III. When the cast seem to be having a riotously good time and when it's obvious that their energy is directly transmitted to the audience, you know that it's been a successful Falstaff.

****1