Having presented a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff as part of its Festtage at Easter, the Staatsoper Berlin now unveils a new production of its close relation: Otto Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, premiered at the house 170 years ago. As before, Daniel Barenboim conducts, while Michael Volle, who made his role debut as Falstaff in the Verdi, here shifts across to become Herr Fluth (aka Ford). René Pape steps up as the Fat Knight, donning an exaggerated fat suit in a production by David Bösch that is desperately, depressingly short of charm.

René Pape (Sir John Falstaff) © Monika Rittershaus
René Pape (Sir John Falstaff)
© Monika Rittershaus

Like Mario Martone with his Falstaff, Bösch updates the action, albeit to a couple of decades later. We’re in the 80s or 90s. Falko Herold provides the shabby and distinctly unchic costumes. Patrick Bannwarth’s revolving set features a pair of grotty holiday bungalows: plastic furniture, barbeques, rotary clothes dryers, net curtains hanging behind huge sliding windows. A shabbily built swimming pool, which later hosts a tacky wedding piss-up, sits behind. This world’s inhabitants seem to be on holiday – permanently – and fill the long days with excessive drinking. Never mind merry, these wives of wherever-it’s-supposed-to-be are positively sozzled.

But, as can also be the case with updated Falstaffs (including Martone’s), there’s a problem. Why should we care about these people, and, perhaps more to the point, why should they care about – or even engage with – Falstaff himself? Take away the tension between the person and his position within a creaking hierarchy and you lose all the bite and satire – and a great deal of the humour. And here part of the problem is also with Nicolai’s work. The music is melodious, likeable and enjoyable, but, though Falstaff is central to the plot, he feels strangely peripheral to much of the action.

Pavol Breslik (Fenton) and Anna Prohaska (Jungfer Anna Reich) © Monika Rittershaus
Pavol Breslik (Fenton) and Anna Prohaska (Jungfer Anna Reich)
© Monika Rittershaus

Bösch also succeeds in making him deeply unlikeable. The director goes all out with the superficial – and in many ways dubious – visual gag of the fat suit, but beyond that all we’re left with is a binge-drinking slob. Pape gamely plays along, but one wishes that just a fraction of the warmth and humanity of his singing – his smooth, civilised bass purrs along pleasingly – could be matched by the characterisation. Volle, meanwhile, sings powerfully, as one would expect, but his character is reduced to nothing more than the sum of its ranting and raving parts. The constant threat of violence he poses towards his pregnant wife (beautifully sung here by Mandy Fredrich) is hardly, to put it mildly, endearing.

Michael Volle (Herr Fluth) and Mandy Fredrich (Frau Fluth) © Monika Rittershaus
Michael Volle (Herr Fluth) and Mandy Fredrich (Frau Fluth)
© Monika Rittershaus

There’s something more interesting going on with Anna Prohaska’s excellent Anna, whose discontent is deepened by her being presented as a (quite justifiably) miserable teen, soulfully quoting from Romeo and Juliet. Otherwise, depth is in short supply. The dialogue is liberally adjusted and delivered in a variety of comedy accents. On their accidental coupling up, Dr Cajus (David Oštrek) and Junker Spärlich (Lienard Vrielink) suddenly realise they’re gay, but not before – as part of Bösch’s scattergun approach to gags – Dr Cajus has emerged, in the previous scene, from Frau Reich’s bungalow hastily zipping up his trousers.

There are admittedly some nice touches, with a schnappsed-up Herr Fluth (as Bach) taking grand swipes with the pool cleaning net in an attempt to catch Falstaff, for example. It’s impossible not to enjoy Michaela Schuster letting her hair down as Frau Reich, Wilhelm Schwinghammer's bluff Herr Reich, or Pavol Breslik’s rebellious but mellifluous and soulful Fenton, his “Horch, die Lerche singt im Hain” a highlight. Michael Bauer’s lighting can be very effective, and there’s some poetry as the bungalows part to reveal a vast full moon for the “O süsser Mond” chorus. But setting clothes dryers gently turning doesn’t really offer enough magic to match Nicolai at his most Mendelssohnian in the subsequent fairy music.

René Pape (Sir John Falstaff) © Monika Rittershaus
René Pape (Sir John Falstaff)
© Monika Rittershaus

Here, at least, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle are wonderful, and indeed the playing is superb throughout, with lithe, seductive strings (including superb solo work from concertmaster Jiyoon Lee), bustling winds and luxurious brass. Nicolai’s score can rarely have sounded better, more beautifully sculpted and shaped. But the the love and affection the conductor lavishes on the piece only highlights what's so sorely lacking in Bösch’s production.

***11