|Falstaff, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, review|
|Written by News desk - telegraph.co.uk|
Having a real horse onstage which Falstaff rides into Windsor Forest was only an amusing gimmick, writes Rupert Christiansen.
I first got to know – and love – Verdi’s final masterpiece Falstaff through the legendary recording conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Such is its laser-sharp, diamond-hard brilliance that I rather wish I hadn’t. In the theatre, the opera can never quite live up to the expectations it established: where is the champagne effervescence, the cruel edge to the humour, the whiplash precision of ensemble?
The Royal Opera’s new production isn’t bad by any means, but once again it misses the mark. Its conductor Daniele Gatti would dispute Toscanini’s interpretation, I guess, as he seems to be aiming for something warmer and more expansive. Although the orchestra plays very well for him, the phrasing errs towards heavy-handedness and I missed the note of merry devilry: the score didn’t dance, scintillate or giggle.
An oddly heterogeneous and polyglot cast has been assembled, featuring only one Italian and one Brit. This is an opera of three teams – the wives, Ford’s, Falstaff’s – but none of them gelled convincingly, and as so often with this opera, one wished that they had had a week’s more rehearsal in which to perfect their timing and push up the speed limit.
Ambrogio Maestri’s Falstaff was firmly sung through a big old-fashioned baritone. Oddly, he carelessly threw away the tiny gem of an aria “Quand’ero paggio” and altogether seemed low-key and short of greasy charm.
Dalibor Jenis and Ana Maria Martinez similarly struggled to make much impression as the Fords, even though I don’t feel inclined to nitpick at their vocalizing. As the young lovers Nannetta and Fenton, Amanda Forsythe and Joel Prieto were sweet enough but not enchanting, and it was left to the sumptuous contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux to deliver the evening’s one truly successful performance as a goggle-eyed Hattie Jacques of a Mistress Quickly.
Which brings me to Robert Carsen’s undeniably slick and visually striking staging, set in the 1950s, somewhere between the worlds of Ealing Comedy and the Carry on series, with Falstaff seen as a Jimmy Edwards figure holed up in a panelled country-house hotel. The audience may have loved the Fords’ Good Housekeeping dream kitchen and a real horse which Falstaff rides into Windsor Forest, but these were only amusing gimmicks. Otherwise it was all routine stuff, neither fresh nor witty, with a particularly disappointing hash made of the great last scene. So it’s back to Toscanini for me.
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