On Sunday, Britten’s devastating chamber work The Rape of Lucretia: on Monday, this vibrant production of Verdi’s most joyful opera – no greater contrast could be imagined, although they did have in common some inventive settings and fine singing. This revival by Christophe Gayral of Robert Carsen’s production of Falstaff is also the perfect antidote to the Royal Opera’s current new staging of Guillaume Tell – it’s certainly unlikely to cause any controversy, except perhaps amongst those disappointed that the horse did not put in an appearance in the Windsor Great Park scene.
Ambrogio Maestri is certainly the Sir John of today, and his portrayal is a sympathetic one, less raddled and resentful than many Falstaffs – as with all great exponents of the role, he made you want to smack all the snotty members of the tribe of the naturally svelte who mocked him for his size. His singing was as warm and generous as his persona, ‘L’onore! Ladri!’ emphatically delivered and ‘Alice è mia!’ so touching that you forgot for a moment what a rogue he really is.
He was surrounded by a mostly fine cast, many making house role debuts. Ainhoa Arteta was a vibrant, creamy-toned Alice, and Agnes Zwierko a Mistress Quickly with a nice line in bustling yet not over-stated humour. Kai Rüütel was a confident Meg, her tone and personality blending well with the other ‘conspirators.’ Anna Devin’s Nannetta and Luis Gomes’ Fenton were both a little under-powered at times, although they rose to the occasion in the final act. Peter Hoare’s Dr Caius and Roland Wood’s Ford both made likeable individuals out of their flawed characters; the latter’s Act II aria was a high point. Alasdair Elliott’s Bardolph and Lukas Jacobski’s Pistol were a loveable pair of rogues who might have stepped straight from the pages of Henry IV.
The set design by Paul Steinberg is lavish, bringing to life Carsen’s concept of a 1950s candy-land of homely middle class values in contrast to dissolute aristo ones. My, these ladies are affluent – they have more kitchen cabinets than a whole showroom, and their wardrobes rival the early days of Mad Men. The panelled walls of the Gentlemen’s Club, populated by some prime examples of the Squirearchy, surround a minutely detailed set; for us those walls did not quite work as ‘the oak’ of the final scene, although they certainly passed muster as the partitions of the stable (nice hay-chomping by the horse). The final setting was a bit short on magic, despite plenty of stage smoke and antlers; this is perhaps one scene where a ‘real’ tree is needed, and the use of tables for Sir John to roll along did not quite provide the desired effect when he was being tortured by the assorted ‘fairies.’
The ever-dependable Michael Schønwandt and the ROH orchestra provided sparkling playing, and the huge chorus had been superbly trained by Renato Balsadonna. It’s a production that’s colourful and amiable rather than game-changing – perhaps just the thing for those who want an enjoyable, untroubled evening.