Trivia question: what did Verdi describe late on in life as “that which pleases me most of all my works”? Trick question, actually: he wasn't referring to any of his operas, but rather to the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, the musicians' retirement home he founded a few years before his death. An exterior shot of this Milan building was the first image seen in the production of Falstaff at the Deutsches Oper on Saturday night, part of a short, artificially aged black-and-white film that prefaced the opera proper. Among the comic scenarios involving elderly residents was an elderly baritone singing Falstaff's “Quand'ero paggio”, synced with the 1907 sound recording of this aria made by Victor Maurel, the original creator of the role. When the screen/curtain went up, it disclosed a scene that was an approximate visual match to the film's final shot, and the pit orchestra launched into the prelude.

Playing the opera as if put on in the Casa Verdi retirement home allowed director Christof Loy to link Verdi's last opera, written in his late seventies, with his near-contemporaneous social project. First staged during the Verdi anniversary last year, this production of Falstaff was amusing, ingenious and baffling, frequently all three at the same time. The principals appeared first in caricatured elderly guises, all perms, bald pates and stoops, and then shed these as they immersed themselves in their roles, with the entire cast except Falstaff resuming elderly costumes during the final fugue (think of Olivier's Henry V, which begins and ends on stage, but moves into a more 'realistic' filmic world in between).

So far, so neat. However, there were plenty of transitions back and forth between nursing-home world and the world of the play that were more anarchic: for instance, Bardolph and Pistol openly resumed their grey wigs and false noses on stage when they returned to Falstaff's service in Act II, Pistol even having his coat handed to him from the wings. And even without changing costumes, Falstaff seemed more like an external agent than an in-story character at times: he walked meditatively twice across the stage during the first Nannetta-Fenton scene, pausing and smiling each time at the “Bocca bacciata...” line.

Many of these jolts, which included the occasional Elizabethan costume (e.g. Falstaff's red wooing garb), were surely deliberate alienating effects. At times these were sophomoric and irritating: for instance, the telephone booth that was wheeled on and off without contributing in any meaningful way, or the elaborate forest backcloth for the Herne's Oak scene that was hung at right angles to the correct perspective. 

More than most Verdi operas, Falstaff depends on having a superb ensemble cast, and on this night the singers ranged between average and very good indeed. The physically impressive Kiril Manolov was vocally assured in the title role. While his take on the hapless knight was not side-splitting, he nonetheless caught something of Falstaff's pretensions. He entirely eclipsed John Chest (who played Ford) during their scene together, making the husband seem underpowered and ripe for being cuckolded.

The other stand-out was Elena Tsallagova as Nannetta. With a silvery top register and good projection, she always managed to come through even in the busiest parts, and her fairy-queen number “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” was simply delightful. She caught the flirtatiousness of her character, and showed herself to be the complete triple threat by demonstrating her en pointe ballet skills in Act III. Her on-stage inamorato, Fenton, was acceptable, although he did not reconcile me to the dramatically redundant aria “Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola”.

The best comic turn of the evening was Dana Beth Miller, who relished her role as the comic servant, Mistress Quickly. Her “Reverenza” speech was delivered with gusto and appropriately coarse gestures, enough to spark the interest of the amorous Falstaff; in a clever departure from the libretto, she disappeared not into the inn but under the sheets with him as the narration of the story of the Black Huntsman passed to Alice Ford. The latter role was played by Maria Pia Pisciatelli, who was strong and secure with confident high notes. Jana Kurucová as Meg Page, and Thomas Blondelle as Dr Caius were adequate, while of Falstaff's two followers, Gideon Poppe (Bardolfo) was the more involved actor, while Marko Mimica's Pistola had an impressive weight of sound as Pistola (though his obvious frowns during the curtain calls seemed out of place).

Under Stefan Solyom's direction, there were recurrent coordination problems between singers and instrumentalists in those places where matters needed to be tightest, with patter ensembles like the cross-rhythmic “Del tuo barbaro diagnostico” sounding woolly. Given the short rehearsal periods normal at the Deutsche Oper, these blemishes will hopefully be ironed out over the course of the run.