Salzburg Festival 2023 Review: Falstaff

Director Christoph Marthaler Make a Colossal Failure Out of Verdi’s Masterpiece

By João Marcos Copertino
(Photo: © Ruth Walz)

A couple of weeks ago, I had a lovely conversation with one of the dramaturgists of Salzburg Festival’s production of Verdi’s “Falstaff.” He pinpointed how strange it is for a dramaturg to hear that the staging for this production did not work, but the music did. To him, music and theater are part of the same package. In fact, opera only works when the two work together, and I agree.

Unfortunately, it is hard to know where to begin enumerating what went wrong in this season’s production. There was a complete disregard for the audience and a blatant incompetence in storytelling. The most uninspiring was the singing and one of the worst musical directing performances that I have heard in my life. It was all bad, which was all the more dispiriting because the musicians and artists have proven themselves extremely competent elsewhere. Therefore, this “Falstaff” is a global misfire and nothing could be saved.

Disaster Strikes

First, I want to try and explain the subplot that guided the opera performance. I can guarantee that more than half of the audience really could not follow. And this is why.

Christoph Marthaler tries to translate this 15th century opera with a film setting reminiscent of Orson Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight.” If you haven’t seen it, that’s okay, neither has the scenic staff. The idea is that there is an actor, Marc Bodnar, who plays “Orson W.” He is directing a Falstaff-ish film and they are in early production with a stubborn and de-glammed cast. The action changes completely when, in the second act, they are shooting a scene from Falstaff at the Fords’ house. Orson W. is lenient towards the actor playing Falstaff, George Finley, and his abuse of the Alice Ford actress, Elena Stikhina. Infuriated, all the women in the cast stage a coup and take the film into their own hands by the third act.

That is as far as I can go with detailing matters of the plot. There were a series of actions that were incomprehensible. The stage looked as congested as Penn Station on a Friday at 5 p.m. and there was a riot of actors who appeared to have no discernible function on stage beyond their holding of small symbols. They might have been referring to moments in the opera: the horns, the fairy, baskets, etc. But, this is uncertain.

The scenario was divided into three different spaces: the film set, a small screening room, and a Hollywood house that might or might not have been part of the film set. Not only were these three places poorly designed, but they also did not change at all during the performance. It was one of the most boring stages ever.

Beyond the horrible confusion in the storytelling, Marthaler also failed, in my opinion, to give any meaning to Verdi’s “Falstaff.” As an opera critic, I have seen—and praised—my share of unorthodox productions, including Paris Opera’s “La Bohème” in space, Amsterdam’s Hollywood nightmarish “Rusalka” and the backstage-of-a-cabaret staging of “La Périchole” at Champs-Elysées. Although controversial, these productions did try to shake things up and bring to the staging a sense of urgency. Most importantly, they sought to express a deeper meaning. Sideral Puccini made death ubiquitous to all happiness of youth. Amsterdam told us how dreams are unachievable when on the screen. Champs-Elysées stressed something sexual in the desire to command. Their readings may be questioned, and may even ultimately be questionable, but they had something to say—and they knew how to deliver their message.

Here, it was not the case.

Fear of Women?

Salzburg’s “Falstaff” lacked competence in most, if not all layers. It made manifest a certain ideological confusion that is ingrained in many opera productions. It’s like they tried too hard to “modernize” and in the process ended up actually patronizing their own opera, teaching their characters to be prudish.

On the one hand, all the classic moments that define “Falstaff” are abolished and treated as mere gimmick or commercialized symbols. It was as if they were meaningless to the music and to the action. Falstaff will not enter a basket and be thrown into the river. He will also not wear any costume with a horn at midnight. Marthaler, unable to see the meaning behind such symbols, stripped them of any possible scenic implication. Hence, they all became senseless, unnecessary, and irritating. Falstaff will wear a t-shirt with some drawings of horns on it, and there is a dancer who  repetitively enacts the basket scene. Instead of asking why such moments are in the libretto, the solution is just to say: I know it happens, but I do not care why.

On the other hand, it seems that there is a discomfort with most opera in the repertoire in which female characters circumvent patriarchal oppression with wisdom and astuteness. Uncomfortable with the depiction of historical fiction, stage directors transfer the action to a place where the victimhood of the female characters is unequivocal. Therefore, making their scenic lives solely defined by the abuses that they have suffered. Their agency is suppressed again under the pretense of “restoring” it. Alice Ford is not alone in that ship. It seems to me that “Le Nozze di Figaro” has suffered from the same treatment in the last couple of years.

Rather than trying to rescue Susanna and Alice Ford from their oppressors, a doomed task since they save themselves without anyone else’s help, stage directors should be asking themselves why they fear these witty characters. What is so threatening about these comic characters who manage to thrive in an operatic repertoire that often kills its protagonists? It seems to me that everyone is still afraid of Alice Ford—and maybe they should be.

Not Much Effort

By the end of the second act, I could not see much effort from any of the singers. They were tired after so much disrespect. Don’t get me wrong, they are all very talented, but the scenic mess affected the music. Their acting was so uninspired that some gestures were unwatchable. In the third act, when the fairy choir targets Falstaff, their hand gestures could only be compared to that of a Staten Island girl drying her nails at the salon.

Conductor Ingo Metzmacher has a lot of experience with opera, so even he might be able to acknowledge that his reading of “Falstaff” was far from great. He couldn’t tame the massive sound wall of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. This is a common problem, but never this bad. Under his guidance, most of the singers were completely inaudible. While it is nice to hear more clearly the complex orchestration of the most mature of all Verdi’s scores, it is always bad when the orchestra and voices are completely unbalanced, especially in a repertoire that relies so much on the text. The distinct darker sonority of the VPO, especially in the winds, became the norm. Their classic strings timber transformed into a ferocious swarm of wasps.

One of the most tricky things about “Falstaff” is its complicated rhythms, which are essential to the opera’s comic timing. Here, everything was desynchronized. The first act was devastated by the the orchestra’s inability to play with minimal panache and delicacy. The conductor’s rhythmic impression made the coordination of singing with the orchestra impossible. Remember those charming group scenes at the Fords? They did not happen.

Another big issue with “Falstaff” is that the singing relies much more than other operas on the text and on the parlatto. The consonants are way more present. This makes it difficult for singers to shape their phrases, and it hinders vocal projection, especially when the orchestra goes rogue and thinks Verdi is Shostakovich. Most conductors, avoiding such problems, better control their orchestral sound. They make sure that the phrases’ tonics are well-put in place. This is key to making the second act finale and the final fugue shine. Needless to say, that did not happen here. Some people even wondered if there was any fugue at the end of the opera at all.

Vocal Struggles

Gerald Finley sang Falstaff with a lighter and less resonant voice than usual, lacking the low harmonics so common to “immenso Falstaff.” His version of the character was also unsure of his entitlement, as if Finley himself were unsure whether or not he is a repulsive man. It was the first time that I have ever struggled to hear Gerald Finley’s voice. There were issues in the projection and even a bit in the tuning when he was in falsetto. In the first act monologue debating the usefulness of Honor, he struggled to make transitions between moments with full orchestra and the unaccompanied phrases. While against the orchestra, his high notes were inaudible. His pianissimos, especially in “L’onore lo puï sentire chi é morto?” were tasteless. Finley is a singer with such a long career and many great achievements. I look forward to forgetting this bad performance and seeing him singing well again soon.

In Finley’s defense, the staging deprived Falstaff of any possible charm and in the most moving moment of the opera, his final solo “Tutti gabbati! Irride,” they did not even let him sing! It was sung by Bodnar, the otherwise forgettable actor who played Orson W.

After the success of #freeBritney, I think we should try #letFinleySing!

More striking to me was how insipidly soprano Elena Stikhina presented herself on stage. The singer that has to her credit Cio-Cio-San, Salome, and Elsa von Brabant, had a beautiful but quiet voice as Alice Ford. Her scenic presence was underwhelming, with very small and simple movements. It was as if she were too tired to even bother. Nevertheless, she sang many lines with a very good legato. The issue is that Alice Ford is a very tricky role that might require capacities that are not fully matched to Stikhina’s instrument.

Alice Ford’s part is a bit less lyrical than most soprano parts, and it has often been performed by sopranos who have not had the most stellar careers elsewhere. Ilva Ligabue might be the most famous example. Also, Alice is more witty than willful, which often places sopranos in a different realm of expression. My impression is that Stikhina had great ideas for the role, and after a tenuously tiresome period of rehearsals and jeered-at performances, she progressively decided to follow her contract and give up. In the first break, people booed unapologetically: not aiming at the singers, but the production as a whole. In the third act, she spent most of her time seated on the director’s chair, moving her hands fastidiously.

Mrs Quickly was delivered by Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, a singer with much talent elsewhere. But again, perhaps miscast. Although Baumgartner clearly struggled less with Metzmacher’s conducting, maybe they get along better, it was evident that her instrument is more suitable to Mahler. Maybe even Wagner instead of Verdi. Quickly’s signature “Reverenza” had a significant break in the emission and focus in the middle of the word. The projection quality changed completely. Such break works well in Strauss. For example, how nice are the guttural “warums” in “Elektra’s” Clytmenestra? But, it is not ideal for the irony within Quickly’s reverent salutations. It is like a joke unproperly told.

Usually, I am a great admirer of Simon Keenlyside. The baritone has infinite qualities and my personal liking for him might have softened my eyes towards him for most of the night. However, even I have to admit that things were far from ideal. To begin with, his costumes were extremely unsuitable to his body. Keenlyside really cannot pull off high-waisted pants. Moreover, his voice was like Baumgartner’s. It was less affected by the heavy orchestra, but it also ended up highlighting a series of higher harmonics that are not as pleasing or important as they should be. His aria in the second act almost worked scenically, but the sound was a waste of a great singer who, otherwise, can phrase everything like a nightingale.

Also attacked by the costume design, was tenor Bodgan Volkov. He wore a four-button blazer that would have made anyone look bad. Moreover, it was impressive how all of Fenton’s lyrical qualities, usually a relief in such textually dense opera, was chopped away. Besides the uneventful interactions with Nanetta in the first and second acts, his third act aria “Dal labbro il canto,” was completely swallowed by the orchestra. They could not understand that the melodic line was in the tenor voice. This made the aria uncentered and uneventful. What a shame. First, because the tenor seemed to have a fine voice, and second because Fenton is one the most charming lyric-tenor characters. His aria is in contrast with Nanetta’s. Both are beautiful, but while the soprano is “acting” a show of magic, the tenor is speaking from his heart. It seems that, in such a patronizing production, youthful love cannot be a protagonist.

Speaking of Nannetta, soprano Giulia Semenzato asked the audience to excuse her because she was performing sick. To be honest, I would not have been able to tell. Her voice did sound less vibrant than it should, but so did everyone else’s. Again, in a production that so fears love, her role was diminished. There was a fairly vulgar indication of sexual activity in the second act that could have been dispensed with. Her beautiful third act aria was sung with a thick vibrato and continuous attention to making the voice a part of an orchestral forest. A nice gesture towards Verdi’s score.

Cecilia Molinari tried to be funny in most of her scenes as Meg Page. The result was innocuous.

Thomas Ebenstein sings the unfortunate Dr Cajus with the correct comic intentions, though he appeared to be the only character whose defining characteristics in  the opera were preserved.

Michael Colvin and Jens Larsen were extremely confusing as Bardolfo and Pistola. At first, the staging really did not know what to do with these characters. In the first act, they were literally reading the score. Their comic timing and comic voices were absent. Not even the usual gimmicks were provided.

Salzburg’s “Falstaff” was a colossal failure. The audience, in general, booed the performance from the first curtain call. Although at the end some proud figures cried a “bravo” or two, it was clearly one of the most unenthusiastic rounds of applause that has ever happened in the Great Festival Hall.

The production commits mistakes on all ends. It wants to be a feminist take, but it is patronizing. It wants to be an opera, but has an orchestra that plays as if it were the soloist. It is inexcusable that so many talented musicians could embark on such a sinking ship without any attempt to save the night. However, only in Salzburg can such Titanic disasters happen.

Salzburg often does amazing things, but also has enough resources to make a disaster, too. And that is something good. How many operatic institutions can afford to make mistakes nowadays?


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