How appropriate in these times to stage a work about a self-important male who is well past his prime, has a wildly inflated opinion of himself and systematically becomes the butt of every joke. The difference between Shakespeare’s Falstaff and his modern equivalent(s) is that Falstaff finally realizes that he is a joke, and subsequently takes a step farther in self-awareness by pointing out that though his can be made fun of, it is only though him that people recognize the ridiculousness in themselves. “Tutto nel mondo è burla ... Tutti gabbati!”(Everything in the world is a jest) ends Verdi’s comic masterpiece, set in a tangled fugue which threatens to confound even the most well-versed musicians and ensemble.
Thankfully, the Wiener Staatsoper has brought a great number of capable singers and a living legend in the world of conducting, Zubin Mehta – after an eight year hiatus from the Haus am Ring – to deal with this monster of a work. Falstaff is anything but simple, and first time listeners are often hard put-upon to hear in it the same composer who wrote Rigoletto, La traviata and Don Carlo. Verdi’s final opera, to Arrigo Boito's libretto based on Shakespeare, opens without an overture, and largely consists of parlando-style recitative, devoid of dramatic arias and duets. There are memorable solo moments – Nannetta’s "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio" is a gorgeous moment in Act III and was beautifully rendered by Hila Fahima whose voice fairly defies gravity. Ford’s jealous “È sogno o realtà?” was sung by one of the most flexible, well-developed and interesting baritone voices today, Ludovic Tézier.
Other standout voices included the tremendously rich-voiced Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and the title figure himself, Ambrogio Maestri who has made singing Falstaff his specialty. Both Maestri and Tézier vary from the dramatic to the humorous with such ease that one almost forgets how brutally difficult their roles are. What was perhaps, however most striking was the variety of vocal colors chosen for this production. Carmen Giannattasio’s richly Italianate, distinctly enveloping sound cast her as an immensely poised, put-together Alice Ford, contrasting nicely with the bright, youthful immediacy of Fahima’s shimmery soprano. Fenton, Nannetta's love interest, was sung by Paolo Fanale, who held his own. Likewise mezzo Lilly Jørstad, singing Meg, pinned the female ensembles together vocally, and looking absolutely stunning doing so. Add to the mix the character roles of Bardolfo (KS Herwig Pecoraro) and Pistola (Riccardo Fassi) and you have a very colorful palette indeed. While opinions will certainly differ about whether some of the casting choices were ideal, I appreciated the variety in vocal characterization.
David McVicar's staging and concept is beautiful and traditional, with décor (Charles Edwards) and costumes (Gabrielle Dalton) to match. The concept revolves around trees. Falstaff’s family tree decorates the stage curtain, there are wooden props, most notably a wooden bridge which allows for the two-tiered action and reaction that Falstaff requires, and a massive tree dominates the final, woodland scene. Despite the inherent comedy present in the characters and situations, nothing is overblown and laughs are earned through the story, not through farce. The opening scene is placed in Falstaff’s quarters at the inn, the centerpiece being his spacious bed, drowning in mussed sheets. This transitions nicely to the scene in the Fords' home where he ends up tucked into the laundry, then finally tossed unceremoniously from two massive picture windows. When we see the aging ladies' man again, it is in a massive tub, bathing off his indignation. The most stunning pictures are painted in the final, forest scene which is complete with devils, a resplendent fairy queen all in white, and dancing fairy children who groove to the final fugue.
Mehta favored moderate tempi which were lively and exciting but never extreme. He let the comedy and beauty in the score speak for itself without driving it to be more than it is, and provided a steady, knowledgeable hand to guide musicians and singers through what may be Verdi’s most intensely packed score. There is no doubt that he completely understands the score, and though it was not the most riveting interpretation I have yet to hear, it was very, very solid under Mehta’s steady baton. In short, the Staatsoper's new Falstaff is a production that is attractive not only visually, but also in terms of the varied musical color. The Staatsoper has drummed up a pretty win this holiday season.
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