Dangerously close to the genre of farce, Verdi’s “Falstaff” almost lifts the burden of tough singing from its players. Centered on a large ensemble cast to which – with the exception of the titular protagonist – the vocal challenges are doled out almost equally, its arias are largely scant.
Transferring the setting from 15th-century London to a fanciful, blown-up and whimsical take on the fifties, Robert Carsen’s 2012 production of “Falstaff” follows a meticulous arrangement. Equipped with bowler hat and cane, Falstaff himself is an insouciant, indulgent, indolent aristocrat hoping compulsively to satisfy his gustatory (and, to a lesser extent, other primal) urges. Just as the story has an aura of a moral fairytale, the staging chooses to reflect a universe at odds with dull reality: Falstaff’s quarters bear the same backdrop of a wooden panel as the stable where he finds himself after being thrown into a river; the kitchen where Alice, Meg and Mistress Quickly all entrap him has banana-yellow drawers and cupboards lined with different-colored tinted glass decanters. Ford, an illustrious and wealthy man, arrives at Falstaff’s house dressed in a pair of cowboy boots, a light gold suit and Stetson hat.
In the context of an opera where most characters indulge in masquerading as another and Falstaff’s expansive belly stops him drowning in River Thames – it’s all fair game.
Although the final gesture of a long, cloth-covered dining table serving as a model runway for the characters to come and tell us we the audience are fooled (“Tutti gabbati”) poses a cliché, for the most part every element is matched-up with its partners to create the picture puzzle of a whole: dresses of the Merry Wives of Windsor – on one occasion, one of them pale pink, another black and white and checked, the third a sparkling turquoise – forge a palette of contrasting shades. With no billed “Movement Director,” the madcap nature of the chorus and the focal cast members is beautifully choreographed, with their coherent physicality playing as large a role in this production as their voices.
Bryn Terfel pumps his vocal portrait of the leading role with wanton portamenti, fiercely-held long notes that drop abruptly to embody Falstaff’s torpor, and a brusque, nearly vulgar vibrato that highlights his coarseness. Every movement of his hand – that loaded swagger, constant sudden and harsh gestures and those squinting, lazily contemptuous eyes – is Falstaff incarnate. His tirade about the vacuity of honour in the first act relies heavily on the grumbling, grave accents of Terfel’s bass register. It manages through the enactment of these notes to flaunt a barbaric inelegance without this derailing the vocal line. At the same time every grandiose statement of Falstaff’s – such as his curse of Ford, “Il diavolo se lo porti all’inferno con Menelao suo avolo!” (“May the Devil carry him off to Hell along with his ancestor, Menelaus!”) – resounds with the unerring potency of firm beliefs. True to character, Terfel interprets Falstaff as a man who invariably believes he’s in the right.
Ford is perhaps the opera’s only character carried away by enflamed passions of rage – not just feelings of grievance and sour injustice. As he visits Falstaff in the guise of “Signor Fontana”, we can already hear underneath his pretence that growl-like, increasing crescendo that expands little by little with an intensified use of vibrato. It’s the sign of a seething anger set quickly to bubble and pop. Simon Keenlyside presents Ford as a victim of deceit more than a pawn of antics and chicanery; his accusatory roulade on the “ga” of “madrigale” – when he sings of how his “courtship” of Alice involved singing a madrigal – forecasts impending wrath. By the time he’s convinced of his wife’s imminent adultery and sings “È sogno o realtà” – “Is this a dream, or is it real?” – the markedly slow diminuendi let the audience know that Keenlyside prefers to imbue his character with genuine psychology, rather than simply subscribe to the slapstick, over-the-top genre of which this opera is part.
Chief plotter of vengeance, Ana María Martínez’s Alice handles a piquant, quivering soprano voice to execute tones of both malice and sorcery, applying emphasis to the derisive phrases which best amplify the haughtiness the women feel where Falstaff is concerned. We hear it in her reference to her face in Falstaff’s letter, “Il viso tuo su me risplenderà” – which she recites scathingly, caustically slenderizing her timbre. With mostly pristine coloratura at her disposal, Martínez’s instrument is nonetheless strongest at the pit of its register – where it is more apt to mock, with relish, the long antlers Falstaff will grow as the result of his duplicity (“Due corna lunghe, lunghe, lunghe”). There are occasions when her Alice could exploit more bite and reprimand, and certain high notes can approach precariousness. But her performance isn’t easily forgettable.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Mistress Quickly best showcases the very nature of the piece. Uninhibited, pedantic and comedically unhinged, her pretended deference before Falstaff when she comes to tell him that Meg and Alice are pining for him is delightful to watch. With a malleable contralto voice, Lemieux squeezes her timbre so that the voice itself – growing from thin to expansive to thin again – matches the shape of a horn. So convincing are her cries of “Povera donna” in describing the two “lovelorn” ladies that the audience wants to believe her. And each time she addresses Falstaff anew, pledging her respect (“Reverènza”), she finds another intonation that suggests obsequiousness with which to garnish those four notes.
Uneven Love Triangle
Fenton – the opera’s romantic hero – is so caught-up in puppy love that, with his soothing Act Three aria, “Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola,” he risks being a laughingstock. Though Frédéric Antoun tenderizes his instrument, lavishing the part with slow diminuendi sweet to hear, instability in the higher register goads many notes into souring conspicuously. By his side as bride-t0-be Nannetta, soprano Anna Prohaska faces similar problems. Though the middle section of her register is light and limber, by the time she has to sing of a kissed mouth renewing its freshness like the moon reappears (“Anzi si rinnova come fa la luna”), the top notes are skimpy.
Carlo Bosi’s Dr. Caius exploits the parlato manner of singing well to fling around outraged, bombastic tones at the beginning of the opera when he accuses Falstaff of theft. Through the immediate way he cuts his quickened notes we hear self-righteousness and indignation. Despite being a smaller role, Marie McLaughlin lends her velvety timbre credible aspects of conniving as Meg. The rascal Bardolph is given accurate wayward tones by tenor Michael Colvin, whose fussy manner as the character is countered by the grouchy, brazen bass voice of Craig Colclough as his sidekick, Pistol.
Conducted by Nicola Luisotti, the music never loses sight of its broad, frenzied nature; expulsions of brass are as crude as they should be, strings scramble in their unwound rhythm like a hive of buzzing bees and timpani enter on point and pompously. Though there are moments when the violins become somewhat disheveled, admittedly the opera’s absurd genre makes the musical offense seem lesser.
With a cast responding so adeptly to changes in lighting and pace – and acting with choreographed movements that appear always spontaneous – the production fuses theatre and music to create a fine spectacle the audience are subjected to listen to. An opera is born.