As I dug my tickets out for Falstaff on Saturday, I had to remind myself it was a new production. I had rather enjoyed Graham Vick’s bright and breezy production, which had reopened the Opera House in 1999, and was a little bit of apprehensive about a new one. As it happens, it was a fine evening, with a crisply told story in some imaginative designs. Musically, it was rather wonderful too.
The production’s inspiration is the huntin’, shootin’ ‘n’ fishin’ set and their clash with the nouveau riche middle classes. Wood panelling dominates all scenes, the full-height panelled walls being rearranged for each room set, with the addition of a rather wacky kitchen for Alice Ford’s spoof romantic invitation to Falstaff. In the Garter Inn scene, set out as a refined restaurant, there was a wonderful wealth of little details in the background characters – waiters and other diners – as the women laugh and scheme. For the scene in Windsor Great Park, the walls swing open to create a large expanse, which is the production’s only faltering moment. This opening-out seems to be accompanied by a loss of the focus that is so pleasantly in evidence elsewhere. Much play has been made of the appearance of a live horse in this scene, as well as the stable scene that preceded it, and this probably contributes to the faltering, with the horse constraining the otherwise sharp and spirited action to no particularly great effect. In the preceding scene, (s)he had added something rather wonderful, laconically chomping on hay as Falstaff contemplates his humiliation. In all, it was a relatively minor falter, and things picked up again for a neat and vivacious close.
Musically, Daniele Gatti kept things at a brisk comedic pace, and it was almost quite difficult to keep up, albeit that this added to the whirlwind quality of the score. Just occasionally, it meant that singers struggled to project over an orchestral combination of breathless vivacity and volume. Gatti stirred up a sombre air of mystery in the Great Park scene. The orchestra and chorus were both on very fine form indeed; the orchestra’s bite and precision certainly came to the fore, never compromising their warmth and fulness of tone.
As our hapless protagonist, Ambrogio Maestri could really turn up the bluster when needed, with some rich stentorian outbursts, but delivering most of the part with a refinement and nuance that was not unwelcome in a character that can so easily become one-dimensionally grotesque. He lacked some of the air of danger brought to the part by Bryn Terfel, for example, but this is all minor cavilling about what was a thoroughly enjoyable portrayal. In fact, it contributed to a stronger sense of Falstaff as (less-than-innocent) victim of the restless, gossipy intrigues of those around him (which is one interpretation, though I’m not sure I’d like to venture it…) As Ford, Dalibor Jenis gave a remarkable account of the jealousy scene in Act 2 scene 1, amidst a strong performance both musically and dramatically. Joel Prieto was a sweet-voiced Fenton, Carlo Bosi was a little slim of voice as Dr Caius, and Lukas Jakobski and Alasdair Elliott were convincingly roguish, even thuggish, as Pistol and Bardolph.
The women were led by the Alice Ford of Ana María Martínez, with sparkling, sharp comedy and a velvety voice. As Nanetta, during her duets with Fenton, Amanda Forsythe launched some pianissimo notes of heart-stopping beauty, pitched perfectly on a vibrato-less tone, and opening out after what seemed like an aeon. Completely floored me, I have to say. Marie-Nicole Lemieux appeared to revel in the bawdy high-jinx of Mistress Quickly, able to plumb a few contralto depths to add to the comic effect as she bustled and vamped her way through the role. Kai Rüütel ably completed the ensemble as Meg Page.
Such a pleasant evening, overall. A few minor carps about an aspect of the production couldn’t detract from an evening of such joyous music-making. It’s a weird one, Falstaff: it’s at once intensely enjoyable and acutely frustrating. The lack of major numbers as ‘anchor-points’, amidst such a busy score of stunning sonorities and melodies creates a sense of never being quite able to pin it down. You’re left completely in the wondrous moment of it, and then it’s gone; and you’re struggling to conjure up just what was so ravishing.
* Updated 24/05: Got characters mixed up! Lorks!