The real live horse onstage in the Royal Opera House’s revival of Robert Carsen’s 2012 production of Verdi’s glorious final opera Falstaff, may get to munch its way through a bale of hay during one scene, but it’s the audience that’s treated to a delightful feast all evening long. Led by the masterful performances of Bryn Terfel in the title role and Nicola Luisotti on the conductor’s podium, this production is a scrumptious, musical meal that would fill even the colossal Sir John Falstaff himself to satiation.
Having premiered his Macbeth in 1865 and his Otello in 1887, Giuseppe Verdi returned to the bottomless well of Shakespeare sources for inspiration for his final opera, which boasts a wry libretto (by Arrigo Boito) that draws its plot primarily from The Merry Wives of Windsor but also incorporates elements from the other plays in which Falstaff appears, Henry IV, Parts I and II. Deeply in debt from his drinking and debauchery, Falstaff plots to seduce either (or both) Meg Page or Alice Ford (Marie McLaughlin and Ana María Martínez, respectively, both excellent in singing and wry characterisation) in order to secure their husbands’ cash. Instead, the two women join forces against him, along with Alice’s daughter Nannetta (Anna Prohaska, a thrilling soprano) and Mistress Quickly (the scene-stealing contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux). That quartet, especially delightful in their Act I plotting scene, sets a series of traps to humiliate Falstaff (including his famous tumble out the window in a laundry basket), while simultaneously avoiding the wrath of Ford, Alice’s husband (the celebrated baritone Simon Keenlyside) who suspects his wife and detests his daughter’s lower-class suitor Fenton (Frédéric Antoun, also lovely).
Carsen deploys his 1950s setting craftily, allowing for some clever moments of character illumination: the young Nanetta, distraught in love, consoles herself with a pint of ice cream. Mistress Quickly’s sweeping gesticulations and wiggles scare off most of the patrons of Falstaff’s social club who are just trying to read their newspapers in peace. Sometimes the resetting just makes for a bit of visual fun — Mistress Ford’s kitchen is a stage-long sea of cabinets and appliances that pokes fun at traditional images of mid-century domestic bliss (in a set designed by Paul Steinberg).
Vocally, the cast could not be bettered. That may be the expectation at Covent Garden, but this production excels most notably, too, in the precise, thoughtful acting of its principals. Terfel’s Falstaff manages to be larger-than-life while still exuberantly human, assisted by both astute physical comedy (like Falstaff’s attempts to escape from the aforementioned laundry basket) and musical agility (Terfel’s sojourns into his falsetto range provide a number of highlights). Lemieux stands out each time her Mistress Quickly lures Falstaff deeper into the plot, and her dexterity around the score and the stage rivals Terfel’s. And even if Keenlyside imbues his Ford with less specificity of character than do his cast-mates, he remains a musical delight.
Carsen’s greatest achievements, perhaps, are those moments in which his direction aligns with the dense charms and implicit psychological complexities of the score itself. This Alice Ford, for example, never seems to shrink from the very thought of straying from her rancorous husband. On the contrary, she swoons over a servant’s physique, and then a passing hunter’s, and when she sings the contents of Falstaff’s overwrought letter (a duplicate copy of which he’s sent to Meg Page) in which he describes the transcendent love they will share, Martínez soars in a lyrical passage, unmatched in its romance throughout the score. It’s not that Alice harbors any hidden feelings for Falstaff himself, but, as the yearning melody and the surges of an all-knowing orchestra suggest, the sentiments in his letter, ridiculous as she knows the writer to be, remind her of longings she cannot satisfy in her marriage. For his own part, Luisotti coaxes such sensitive, nuanced interpretations of the score from the ROH orchestra throughout the performance.
Like all the best feasts, perhaps, there may be more delectable courses than absolutely necessary in this Falstaff, but that means everyone can go home full: after all, I don’t think I needed that horse to find this Falstaff completely satisfying, but who can turn down an extra helping in an evening already overflowing with delicious plenty?
Falstaff is playing at the Royal Opera House until 21 July. For more information and tickets, click here.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore