“Of all my works, the one that pleases me most is the Casa I’ve had built in Milan to accommodate old singers who have not been favoured by fortune or who did not possess the virtue of thrift in their youth”. This is how Verdi described the retirement home for elderly musicians he founded at the time of the composition of this opera Falstaff. The Italian director Damiano Michieletto, invited to the Salzburg Festival for the second time (last year he staged La Bohème), chose to put on Falstaff in this retirement home. (If you think this idea comes from Dustin Hoffman’s film Quartet, the reply is negative: Michieletto’s conception came first.) Verdi was near the end of his life when he wrote his last opera. A comedy with a tinge of tragedy: his farewell to the world.

At the very beginning of this new production you can see a video projection on the curtain: the Casa Verdi façade right now. Behind the curtain, before the orchestra starts, as a prologue, a pianist in the middle of the living room is playing Verdi for the guests. When their dinner begins, we recognize Falstaff sleeping.

The main character is an aged man dealing with insatiable cravings and physical decline. According to Michieletto, this Falstaff is an old singer, a guest of Casa Verdi, who dreams about himself. He is taking a long nap on a sofa, lasting the whole opera. The two levels, the oneiric one (the plot set at the time of Verdi, taking place in Falstaff’s dream) and the reality of the retirement home (now), are intertwined. Although the director is following the libretto only in a metaphorical way, the staging works very well because it is coherent, well realized. Most of all, it is funny. Michieletto underlines the humorous side of the story and conductor Zubin Mehta’s musical ideas follow this direction. This lightness is reflected in the orchestral performance. As usual, the Vienna Philharmonic is at ease with Italian repertoire.

Even if the whole cast is good, baritone Ambrogio Maestri stands out. He is the embodiment of Falstaff (he also appeared in this role last year at Covent Garden), with a beautiful, loud voice in addition to the physique du rôle. The tenor Javier Camarena is a surprising Fenton, warmly applauded at the end. A pivotal point is the group of women on the stage most of the time. Women, indeed, are Falstaff’s obsession. They are cheeky, beautifully garbed in 19th-century dress designed by Carla Teti. The women are vocally homogeneous and the elocution is good, both from the native Italians and the non-native singers. They act also very well. The public hailed this performance as a success.

The opera takes place in the Haus für Mozart, a space smaller than the Felsenreitschule and the Groẞes Festspielhaus, and this emphasizes the nature of this work: intimacy, lacework music for a little orchestra. What is the meaning of “Everything in the world a jest” in a retirement home? This production gives a chance to think through the opera to our mortality with a different point of view.