OPERA NEWS - Falstaff
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In Review ROH Falstaff hdl 812
Maestri and Martínez, Falstaff and Alice Ford at Covent Garden
© Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera 2012
IN Review Maestri lg 812
Maestri as Falstaff at Covent Garden
© Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera 2012

For his update of Verdi's Falstaff (seen May 15), shared among the Royal Opera, La Scala, Milan and Canadian Opera Company, director Robert Carsen opted for the 1950s, with Paul Steinberg's large-scale sets presenting Windsor's Garter Inn as an upmarket if old-fashioned hotel, replete with massive oak paneling in its private and public rooms. Alice Ford's kitchen, where she received her amorous visitor for their rudely interrupted assignation, was a state-of-the-art model fitted by the best suppliers, its oven providing the supposed lovers with a tasty-looking roast chicken scarcely sliced into before her accomplices burst in with news of imminent discovery. In its realistic way it all looked magical; curiously, it was in the final scene — where real visual magic is needed for the mock-fairy masque — that some dearth of that quality was felt. The appearances of the docile but eye-catching Rupert the horse (both as Falstaff's mount in Windsor Forest and in the scene when he returns from his Thames drenching, here transferred to the Garter Inn's stables) made the equine interloper an audience favorite while inevitably diverting attention from the action.

Over the past dozen years, Covent Garden audiences have gotten used to the fat knight of Bryn Terfel, who sang in Graham Vick's production when it reopened the theater following extensive refurbishment in 1999, and subsequently in its 2003 revival. (Paolo Gavanelli took the part in 2001.) Carsen's new staging was posited around the giant-sized Ambrogio Maestri, as voluminous of voice as he was of person; indeed, Maestri's is one of the most prodigious baritones available today, previously heard in this theater only as Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino. In terms of his voice's size, his relish for the text and his colorful, outsize stage personality, he answered all possible needs, even if his tonal security is not quite so surefooted at his instrument's extremities as it is in the middle. 

Alice was sung by Ana María Martínez, her radiant soprano moving as accurately and elegantly around the notes as she did in negotiating the physical intricacies of Carsen's staging. Martínez was keenly seconded by the highly noticeable Meg of Estonian mezzo Kai Rüütel — a member of the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists Program. Both visually and vocally flamboyant was the Mistress Quickly of Canadian mezzo Marie-Nicole Lemieux, whose shapely, substantial voice fleshed out Verdi's lines with a warmth of personality amply complemented by her seizing of the part's comic stage possibilities.

Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis, a regular visitor to Covent Garden, sang the psychologically darker role of Ford. His sizable, centered voice attracted keen attention to everything he sang, especially the crucial "È sogno? o realtà?" monologue, which he delivered with steadily rising paranoia; his disguise as "Signor Fontana" — in the shape of a colorful Texan — was less convincing. Each making a good deal of crucial small roles, both individually and as a finely honed double act, were Alasdair Elliott's Bardolfo and (another stage giant) Lukas Jakobski's Pistola.

The two young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, were sung by American Amanda Forsythe and Spanish-born Puerto Rican Joel Prieto. Forsythe's luminous soprano rose easily into the high-lying delicacies of her fairy-song, although Prieto's light tenor needed a touch more brilliance at the top to cut through the ensembles, precisely executed as they were by a cast operating like a well-oiled musical machine. Focused lighting (by Carsen and Peter Van Praet) sometimes highlighted them while darkening the rest of the stage, giving them prominence during their snatched moments together in some visually hyperactive scenes.

Throughout, Carsen showed an ability to motivate his cast to lock into and execute complex physical routines while continuing to exemplify their characters and concerns on a highly specific moment-to-moment basis. The result was an intricate, closely observed Falstaff — witty, charming and human from start to finish.

The director's approach was comprehensively matched by that of conductor Daniele Gatti, whose handling of the score's textural complexity and momentum was faultless. Verdi's masterpiece has rarely seemed so rich or life-affirming. spacer


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