The only Verdi comic opera still widely performed, Falstaff is also his last. Premièred at La Scala in 1893, it was a success despite moving away from the bel canto tradition. It is also the last of Verdi’s ‘Shakespeares’, together with Macbeth and Otello. Based on the Bard’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV (Parts I and II) the Royal Opera’s Falstaff offers an evening of uncompromising, endearing fun.
Robert Carsen – whose production of Dialogues des Carmélites was performed last season at the Royal Opera House – creates a 1950s world that perfectly keeps the opera’s identity while making it more accessible than a medieval set. Everything in this production is delightful: costumes, sets and props. The colourful dresses of the ladies, for instance, contrast sharply with Sir John Falstaff’s archaising wardrobe, in tune with his supposedly aristocratic way of being. Also, the actors and members of the Royal Opera Chorus keep the stage alive in each scene, and are the funniest crowds during Acts II and III. If not slightly tedious, the three pauses between scenes in Acts I and II allow for set changes that transport the audience to a Hollywood classic comedy. The kitchen scene in particular is just hilarious and a feat of comedic timing.
The absolute star of the evening is Ambrogio Maestri. Everything in his performance is joyfully authentic, exerting some sort of magnetism for the audience from beginning to end (he is only eclipsed by a horse’s cameo, but who can resist a horse on stage?). The rest of the cast is rather well balanced: Ainhoa Arteta as Alice is an example of well-crafted comedy, with a beautiful voice to match. Anna Devin as Nannetta is the surprise of the evening, with a wonderfully delicate yet powerful voice that reaches the high notes effortlessly. The other two ‘merry wives’ – Kai Rüütel as Meg Page and Agnes Zwierko as Mistress Quickly – add to the comic effect of the group and shine in the solos. Zwierko delivers some of the laugh-out-loud moments of the evening, particularly when interacting with Falstaff. A special mention goes to Luis Gomes, from the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists programme, who has the responsibility of showing a romantic side to the comedy. He does so with a delicate yet determined performance that is warmly received. In the orchestra pit Michael Schønwandt shows a great understanding of the comic nature of this opera, being flexible and generous to the performers, while keeping a steady rhythm throughout, particularly in the second and third acts. Sadly, the performance takes a scene and a half to speed up, and particularly the first scene looks somewhat lifeless. It will probably need more performances to adjust.
After a summer season full of tragic operas, the audience enthusiastically welcomed a light-hearted comedy like Falstaff. Even if it is not riotously funny – except for the kitchen scene – or realistic enough, you will be smiling all the way through. And sometimes, that is more than enough.
Falstaff is playing at the Royal Opera House until 18 July. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.