Verdi’s Falstaff is a musical miracle. Every detail of its witty score reveals the playful hand of an old master who condensed in a final jest the humanism of all his previous works. But wisdom comes at a price: the demise of the kindest anti-hero in Italian opera leaves a melancholy feeling that the final fugue can only mask for a few minutes. Unlike Don Giovanni’s moral punishment, Falstaff falls victim to a childish vendetta that doesn't feel right. Last night’s new production at the Teatro Real also ended on that bittersweet note, but for the wrong reasons. Seventeen years after the last Falstaff on this stage, a half-baked new production and an uneven cast prevented a more joyful comeback.

Laurent Pelly is such an obvious choice to direct Falstaff that I had to twice check to confirm that he hasn't directed this opera before. His irresistible touch for comedy promised a crazy version of the Pantagruelic myth but he chose instead a sober approach, downplaying all the comic elements of the story. Barbara de Limburg’s sets provide a naturalistic environment, somewhere in the 1970s and into the aesthetics of British black comedy. She marked the contrast between Falstaff’s dodgy world, a tiny dusty pub that gets bigger or smaller depending on Sir John’s spirits, and the Merry Wives’ domains, a massive wooden architecture, half staircase, half courtroom. Joël Adam’s dim lighting added to the general dullness and reinforced what ended up being the main point of the production: joy can spark in many shades of grey, as comedy is embedded in reality and doesn’t need anything exceptional to thrive.

The main victim of such a sobering approach is Falstaff himself. In the libretto, Sir John is a decadent knight with a dubious coat of arms, but he has a rightful claim to Windsor’s high society and that’s why Alice and Meg do care about his licentious raid. In Pelly’s production, however, there is no hint at Falstaff’s rank and there is such a stark divide between the two worlds that the sheer core of the comedy becomes obscure. Roberto de Candia’s performance didn’t help either. His lyric baritone felt sometimes too far from the character’s required range, with weak low notes and a lack of colour. His diction was impeccable though, almost too elegant in that context, and his phrasing correct. His Falstaff was a nice old chap you would have a drink with, rather than the larger-than-life, mutinous spirit that Boito's words and Verdi's music suggest. Next to him, Valeriano Lanchas was an authoritative Pistola, with a coarse baritone perfectly suited for the tavern setting, and Mikeldi Atxalandabaso excelled as a mischievous Bardolfo, thanks to his bright and resounding tenor.

As for the Merry Wives, the four voices matched perfectly but they all sounded lighter in colour and softer in phrasing than one would usually expect. Rebecca Evans sang a cold Alice: her voice took until the end of Act 2 to warm up, with some tension at the beginning, and she was neither sympathetic to her daughter’s pure love nor ironic about the downs of marriage. And there was indeed room for irony because Simone Piazzola made Ford look even duller than usual, with poor phrasing and anonymous acting. Daniela Barcellona was the only truly comic singer of the night as Mistress Quickly, making the most of her scenes with Falstaff. Her lyric mezzo being clean and elegant, the lower notes doesn’t have the hilarious effect of heavier voices, but they sounded fresh and healthy. Meg Page can be an invisible character if not given an extra boost and Maite Beaumont, with her beautiful lyric timbre but plain acting, missed the chance. Ruth Iniesta’s Nannetta was as young and innocent as can be, sung with a ringing and exciting light soprano. Fenton was a perfect counterpart thanks to Joel Prieto’s melting light tenor and passionate acting. Christophe Mortagne sang a loud and funny Dr Caius, completing the excellent team of supporting roles.

For the final act, Pelly left the stage bare in a good, if radical, contrast to the two previous acts. However the fairy night was all but devoid of mystery and magic, and the lack of continuity left the production unresolved. The orchestra didn’t contribute much to the elfin ending either. Daniele Rustioni’s conducting lacked subtlety in the most intricate parts of the score and energy in the comic blows. The strings sounded bulky and formless, dragging the rhythm of the performance. The female chorus, on the other hand, excelled in their short part as fairies thanks to their pearly colour, but it was too late to raise the mood of a disappointing performance.