Jonathan Miller may not be directing new productions of operas any more, but his productions are still being revived in many countries. In Tokyo’s New National Theatre, his Falstaff has just been given four performances (they also revived his Rosenkavalier earlier this year). He directed the production when it was new in 2004 and subsequently it was revived in 2007. The current revival was directed by Yasuhiro Miura.

George Gagnidze (Falstaff) © New National Theatre, Tokyo
George Gagnidze (Falstaff)
© New National Theatre, Tokyo
Firstly, a rough guide to Tokyo’s main opera house – also known as “Opera Palace” – located in the central Shinjuku district. The theatre, opened in 1997, seats approximately 1800 and each season they produce ten operatic productions. This year, there were three new productions (Das Rheingold, Jenůfa and Werther) and seven revivals. The current artistic director of the opera house is Taijiro Iimori, a Japanese veteran conductor known especially for his Wagner interpretations. The cast is largely international with Japanese singers in supporting roles. The house has its own chorus but not its own orchestra, so two Tokyo-based orchestras, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, share pit duties.

In this revival of Falstaff, the orchestra was the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, who played with spirit and elegance under Canadian conductor Yves Abel, a popular guest conductor at the NNTT (I heard his excellent Così fan tutte in 2013). Vocally, they assembled a strong international cast with George Gagnidze in the title role (his role debut), Aga Mikolaj as Alice and Massimo Cavalletti as Ford. However, I felt Russian Elena Zaremba was miscast as Mistress Quickly, her deep mezzo voice too heavy for the quick-witted Mrs Quickly. The young lovers, Fenton and Nannetta, were charmingly sung by Japanese tenor Hiroyuki Yoshida and coloratura soprano Yoko Yasui, and bass Hidekazu Tsumaya repeated the role of Pistola with a comic touch (he is the only person to sing in all three productions).

Aga Mikolaj (Alice) and George Gagnidze (Falstaff) © New National Theatre, Tokyo
Aga Mikolaj (Alice) and George Gagnidze (Falstaff)
© New National Theatre, Tokyo

Miller’s approach in this production is a naturalistic one. He writes in the programme that he believes that this opera is not one that gains by a “conceptual” production, and he decided to set the opera in 17th-century Dutch society because we have more information about 17th-century house interiors through Dutch paintings and he could create a realistic and detailed set (sets/costumes by Isabella Bywater). Thus, the Ford household in Act II is like a Vermeer painting, with doorways, windows, a virginal, lute and a painting on the wall. The costumes are of that period too.

Yoko Yasui (Nannetta) and Hiroyuki Yoshida (Fenton) © New National Theatre, Tokyo
Yoko Yasui (Nannetta) and Hiroyuki Yoshida (Fenton)
© New National Theatre, Tokyo
Miller doesn’t treat Falstaff as an exaggerated caricature, but as a realistic human drama. Although I didn’t see the original production in 2004, I imagine that he would have taken care in coaching the singers in the details of acting and movements and how the characters should interact with each other, and especially the importance of comic timing. Unfortunately, such details were rather lacking in this revival, and although the singers acted adequately, dramatically it was often rather static. I don’t think George Gagnidze is a natural comic either – we associate him with darker and malevolent roles such as Scarpia or Iago – still, as this was his role debut, I am sure he will grow into it. Interestingly, when he sang, I could hear in Verdi’s music a darker side that reminded me of his tragic operas. Cavalletti, a seasoned Ford, played the jealous and outwitted husband with emotion and humour and he certainly got my sympathy. The three ladies seemed all rather similar and could have done with a little more characterisation.

Comically the most successful were the group scenes with the chorus: the end of Act II where the Ford and the men search for Falstaff in his house, and the Act III Windsor Park scene. The search scene, especially the part where the men try to corner Falstaff hiding behind the screen (in fact Fenton and Nannetta), was brilliantly executed. The Windsor Park scene was good-naturedly done and there wasn’t overt bullying of Falstaff, which matched this naturalistic production. The chorus sang sonorously with spirit, giving the scene a depth. The ensemble singing, including in the finale “Tutto nel mondo è buria”, was on the whole excellent and very tidy, but perhaps a little too straight. A satisfying revival, but without the extra magic.

***11