Opera in Geneva is undergoing a couple of years of transition. While the Opera House is being renovated, a substantial wooden building has been erected alongside the entrance to the United Nations, across the road from the UNHCR headquarters. The consensus is that the wood of the structure gives it a marvellous acoustic. It is here that this grey version of Verdi's Falstaff is being performed. Appropriately, there are singers from ten different nations among the eleven principals.

Franco Vassallo (Falstaff) and chorus © Carole Parodi
Franco Vassallo (Falstaff) and chorus
© Carole Parodi

Verdi had written his first comedy opera, Un giomo di regno, over 50 years before he began Falstaff. It was such a failure no one would ever commission him to write comedy again. A fortuitous encounter with Arrigio Boito, engaged to revise the libretto of Simon Boccanegra in 1881, developed into a working friendship, with Boito writing the libretti for Verdi’s last two operas. Both were great admirers of Shakespeare, so it was quite natural that they chose his works for these operas, and Verdi, now in his late seventies, had time on his hands to do with what he wanted. With Boito’s encouragement it was to flourish in Verdi's final opera, a comedy, or a commedia lirica as he named it. This was the genesis of Falstaff which some, including Toscanini, have acclaimed Verdi’s greatest opera.

This Geneva production has a cast of wonderful singers, supported by remarkably expressive playing from the Suisse Romande Orchestra led by John Fiore. On the night I attended Paolo Gavanelli sang Falstaff (his only appearance), bringing great timing and colour to the role with his engaging voice rich in nuanced expression. Mezzo-soprano Marie-Ange Todorovitch, a Mistress Quickly dressed sedately in black, belied her character's usual image, acted with lively personality and zest, and was a bit of a tease in her Act II encounter with Falstaff. I really enjoyed the singing of young Fenton and Nannetta, played by Medet Chotabaev and Mary Feminear, both dressed in pale peach, the brightest colour in the whole opera, demonstrating their burgeoning love for each other, finding the odd moment for a sweet word or quick kiss. They sang their very best hidden behind the screen in the Ford house as, in this production, eighteen men were fruitlessly, frantically searching an empty stage for Falstaff. The scene concluded with one of the comic moments of the night, as Falstaff, under a pile of dirty sheets in a laundry basket, was wheeled behind the ever-present grey monolith to be tossed, with a huge splash of water, into the river.

Ahlima Mhamdi (Meg) Amelia Scicolone (Nannetta) Maija Kovalevska (Alice), Marie-Ange Todorovitch © Carole Parodi
Ahlima Mhamdi (Meg) Amelia Scicolone (Nannetta) Maija Kovalevska (Alice), Marie-Ange Todorovitch
© Carole Parodi

The ladies – Alice Ford (Maija Kovalevska), Meg Page (Ahlima Mhamdi), Quickly and Nannetta – made for a rich quartet, their singing blending beautifully as they stood in the marketplace, discovering that Meg and Alice had received identical letters from Falstaff, and hatching their plot to punish him. Their acting was more basic, while the men – Ford (Konstantin Shushakov), Bardolph (Erlend Tvinnereim), Pistol (Alexander Milev), Dr Caius (Raúl Giménez) and Fenton – also conspired their magnificent voices to thwart Falstaff’s secretive desires. As this was happening the orchestra was proclaiming neat little bursts of instrumental laughter.

The final scene opened to a scrim with an abstract painting of Windsor Park, and the attempt began to put the frighteners on Falstaff. Ghostly figures could be seen moving menacingly behind it as threats of fairies and spooky tales were told, one of the ensemble highlights where all worked seamlessly. When the scrim was removed, the overpowering monolith was still there, now a huge glistening representation of Herne’s Oak, mounted by Nannetta, as queen of the fairies, summoning the forest creature to the fray. She sang commandingly from this command post and creatures dressed in black and white camouflage costumes emerged from everywhere to fill the stage and give Falstaff his comeuppance.

<i>Falstaff</i> in Geneva © Carole Parodi
Falstaff in Geneva
© Carole Parodi

Here especially, but throughout the night, the opera flowed surely and seamlessly. As the River Rhône flows smoothly yet constantly out of Lake Geneva, there was a steady forward pace to this production, a testament to the thoroughness of mise-en-scène Lukas Hemleb, and the strength of this ensemble cast.

While much has been written of the brilliant interplay between Verdi’s innovative orchestration and Boito’s clever ability in weaving the text, it is the opera’s final fugue that is so often spoken about. Here it was brilliantly done, a crowning glory to the night. The stage filled with weird creatures to join in a paean of richness gloriously proclaiming all the world to be a joke, man born a clown, the whole world a farce and he who laughs last laughs longest.

It was a powerful force of magnificently crafted sound to conclude the performance in this wooden hall.

***11