Frittoli, Liebau, Naef, Schmid; Maestri, Camarena, Cavalletti; Chorus and Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House, Gatti. Production: Bechtolf. C Major 711108 (DVD) or 711204 (Blu-ray), 126 mins., subtitled
After killing off Sir John Falstaff in Henry V, Shakespeare decided to resurrect his lecherous knight for The Merry Wives of Windsor, supposedly at the behest of Queen Elizabeth herself. Yet instead of returning to the time period of the Henry IV plays — the early fifteenth century — Shakespeare transported Falstaff to Elizabethan Windsor. Like Rowan Atkinson's equally roguish Blackadder, Sir John is tied down by neither time nor death.
For his 2011 production of Verdi's Falstaff at the Zurich Opera House, director Sven-Eric Bechtolf took a cue from Shakespeare's anachronism and dropped Sir John into 1950s Windsor. The men wear dashing three-piece tweed suits, and the women wear decade-inspired dresses, designed by Marianne Glittenberg. Falstaff, however, seems oblivious to his surroundings and is decked in full Elizabethan garb, complete with a droopy ruff collar. Bechtolf casts Falstaff as a Don Quixote figure who fancies himself a knight-errant in a contemporary setting. Just as Sancho Panza plays along with Don Quixote's delusions, Bardolfo, Pistola and the Windsor crew humor Falstaff by changing into sixteenth-century costumes when they speak with "Sir" John.
It's a fun concept, and it could have been an effective one if it weren't for Rolf Glittenberg's cheap-looking, recession-era sets. There are no overt references to the '50s apart from a large house frame, which may have been meant to suggest mid-century suburbia, and a retro wireless radio that takes the place of Alice's lute in Act II.
The task of holding the production together, then, rests on the well-fed shoulders of Ambrogio Maestri in the title role. The naturally rotund and double-chinned baritone is ideal physically to play the knight. A genius move was to leave Maestri clean-shaven; his marvelous facial expressions make the rest of the cast appear deadpan by comparison. At times, video director Felix Breisach focuses too much on Maestri's mischievous grins and hilarious eye-rolling at the expense of what is actually important in a given scene.
Apart from an annoying tendency to scoop or slide between registers, Maestri offers a lot vocally. His piano passages are particularly expressive, and he can add comic vocal effects without sacrificing musical lines. Although he can pack a lot of power, he often keeps it light, singing Falstaff in the spirit of a buffo patter role.
As Alice, Barbara Frittoli has some shining moments. The Act III Black Huntsman story shows off her rich lower register, but her wide vibrato intrudes much too often in ensembles. She doesn't have much chemistry with Maestri, though Bechtolf's penchant for side gags may be to blame. He has her fiddling with tea and sugar in the Act II "seduction" scene instead of play-flirting with Falstaff.
Javier Camarena's Fenton stands out among the rest of the principals. The Mexican tenor, who made his Met debut last season as Barbiere's Almaviva, has a flexible voice with plenty of well-placed shading, and his Act III monologue is the only thrill-inducing moment of the show.
As his beloved, Nannetta, Eva Liebau has a very sweet voice, but her high notes seem clenched, and she needs to shape the A-flat better in her call-and-response line "come fa la luna." Yvonne Naef plays a stylish and cat-like Mistress Quickly, though her pitch is a bit shaky. Massimo Cavalletti's Ford is unsympathetic in his Act II cuckold soliloquy, and he has some trouble staying with the baton. For his part, conductor Daniele Gatti leads an excellent, well-organized "Tutto nel mondo è burla" fugue; every voice, human and instrumental, is perfectly distinguishable.
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