Christof Loy’s new production of Falstaff for the Deutsche Oper Berlin is a conundrum. While the opera itself tells the story of one audacious fat man’s comeuppance at the hands of his neighbors, Loy’s production seemed to be telling an entirely different story: that of the positive physical effects of playing pranks on your neighbors.

Falstaff © 2013, Hans Jörg Michel
Falstaff
© 2013, Hans Jörg Michel

Starting with a silent movie that depicted Falstaff’s life as, apparently, an entertainer to the very people he later tries to woo, and then moving into the “real” world of the opera, the production makes strange use of its characters, which morph from old to young and back over the course of the opera. Indeed, the prospect of playing such an elaborate joke on Falstaff seems to be the factor that causes Alice, Meg and Mistress Quickly to transform from bent old biddies to seductive women, and Ford to abandon his cane and geriatric wig for a smart suit and Poindexter glasses. Even Bardolfo and Pistola discard their elderly gear when Falstaff fires them. And Falstaff? Even that fat old man removes his grey wig and false paunch to reveal a svelte form and dark hair. And when it is over, all revert to being elderly and bent, even the newly wedded Nanetta and Fenton. Practical jokes, it seems, make Verdi’s comic characters young, if only while they are being perpetrated.

Luckily, the singing and staging did much to alleviate the overall strangeness of the production. Falstaff was written in Verdi’s 80th year, when most people of equivalent age have settled into happy twilight years of water aerobics and Sunday crosswords (or the late 19th-century equivalent thereof). “He who laughs last, laughs best”, Falstaff proclaims in the final fugue, and it is hard not to see Verdi in that statement, gleefully composing comic ensembles and love duets when many had assumed that he had laid down his pen for good.

Played by Donald Runnicles and the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Falstaff is musically sound and often devastatingly funny. Three stage performances in particular stood out. Noel Bouley was an excellent Falstaff, with a great sense of comic timing and a burnished bass-baritone that calls to mind Bryn Terfel. He gave the glutinous Falstaff a depth of character that made the Fords’ harassment of him distinctly mean-spirited. Joel Prieto’s Fenton was an ardent young tenor with a clear tone that was strong enough to stand out during the ensembles, and his acting skills made him a pleasure to watch as well as listen to. As Nanetta, Elena Tsallagova dealt well with stage direction that had her at once acting as nurse to Falstaff and the three matrons and playing the cheery young lover. Her bright soprano was a distinct pleasure particularly during her aria in the final act.

Less convincing were the trio of matrons, Alice, Meg and Quickly. Though ably sung by Barbara Haverman, Jana Kurucová and Dana Beth Miller, none of the women came across as particularly enjoying their escapades. Further, all three were often drowned out by the orchestra, particularly during the first act. Michael Nagy’s Ford was likewise well sung but ultimately unconvincing. The comic trio of Dr Caius, Bardolfo and Pistola was, alas, often confused as the characters jumped in and out of old-people wigs and clothing during hectically staged ensembles.

Indeed, the main problem of Loy’s production is that there is so much going on that one is bound to miss much of what is happening during each scene. This was not helped by either the characters’ frequent changes of clothes and indeed ages, or by the five male servants bouncing around, dragging furniture and costumes and even singers around the stage. Several comic moments were missed in the general chaos, which was too bad. One hopes these problems will be corrected as the production continues its run.

Musically, it was a fantastic evening. There were strong performances all around, even if the staging did not always do the singers justice. Ultimately, this will be a production to keep an eye on.