The words “pure joy” seem to be the most apt way to describe the experience of this Falstaff, with the Iván Fischer Opera Company (a newly-formed venture of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra) delivering excellent music-making combined with a capable staging in their very first performance of a Verdi opera.

Nicola Alaimo (Falstaff) © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Nicola Alaimo (Falstaff)
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

The concept of the production, a combined effort of Iván Fischer and Marco Gandini, is quite simple: set in the 1950s, the story is played entirely straightforwardly, the characterizations traditional but all well-rounded and vividly acted. Props and set pieces are scarce (but ingenious, as is the case with the giant drum used as the folding screen for Act 2 and the instrument-tree for Act 3), and platforms raised on the stage help the singers navigate through the orchestra.

Mingling orchestra and singers isn’t new in Fischer’s stagings (his production of Le nozze di Figaro involved the same), but this time it feels better done. Though in the first act, the orchestra feels more like a backdrop rather than an integral part of the staging, Fischer being the only one to interact with any of the singers, later on they become more heavily involved and properly integrated. Members of the orchestra transform into the fairies accompanying Nannetta in Act 3 in an especially memorable piece of direction. Equally commendable is the way the production (much like last autumn’s Don Giovanni) manages to move its actors around in a fairly confined space without losing dramatic impact or having to awkwardly compromise; even the tumultuous finales never descend into chaos or become stilted.

As for the musical quality of the performance, little could be found wanting. Led by Iván Fischer, the Budapest Festival Orchestra played with a mellifluous, polished sound, relishing in the exuberance of Verdi’s score. Though the musicians were scattered throughout the stage, there was a sense of perfect unity in their performance: their playing was immaculate, dynamic and appropriately jocular.

Xabier Anduaga (Fenton) and Sylvia Schwartz (Nannetta) © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Xabier Anduaga (Fenton) and Sylvia Schwartz (Nannetta)
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

With half of the cast being Italian and many already veterans of their roles, the familiarity with both the language and the characters of the opera was palpable. Nicola Alaimo deserves the highest praise for his Falstaff: his was a flesh-and-blood portrayal, amusing without becoming a caricature, his magnetic stage presence seeming to electrify every scene he was in. Though his inky, sonorous baritone started off a bit rough around the edges, Alaimo quickly came into his own, delivering a tremendous “L’onore! Ladri!” that showcased the intelligent phrasing, great vocal flexibility and that characterized his entire performance. He was well-matched by Eva Mei, whose dark, gleaming voice, remarkable technical security and animated performance made for a captivating Alice. Tassis Christoyannis, a long-time partner of the BFO, was an excellent Ford, singing with a golden, polished baritone, and giving a highly entertaining portrayal of the jealous husband.

Sylvia Schwartz was a charming Nannetta, her pearly soprano shining in “Sul fil d'un soffio etesio”. Xabier Anduaga was easily believable as her young lover Fenton, his ardent tone attractive and ease with high notes impressive, though his singing of “Dal labbro il canto” could have used more focus on sensitive phrasing rather than volume. Yvonne Naef’s deliciously plummy mezzo was a delight to listen to and her Mistress Quickly was hilarious without being overacted, while Laura Polverelli played a delightfully vivacious Meg. Giovanni Battista Parodi’s booming bass made for an impressive Pistola, and he was ideally paired with Stuart Patterson’s Bardolfo, the two making a wonderful comic duo.

Fischer and the BFO have already made a name for themselves with their performances of Mozart operas: after this outstanding performance of Falstaff, I greatly look forward to them achieving the same with Verdi's works.