New ROH Falstaff

17 May

You are directing Act III scene 1 of Falstaff.  It begins with one of the crucial moments in the opera: Falstaff’s monologue “Mondo laddro”, where the mask of confidence and ebullience slips and you get a picture of a rather embittered failure, who suddenly realises it.  In directing that monologue, do you want the audience watching (a) Falstaff or (b) a horse eating hay? If you are Robert Carsen, the answer, apparently, is (b).  Rupert, the star of the show, appears to be a charming horse and it was a treat to watch him eat his hay.  Who cares about whatever Ambrogio Maestro happened to be doing at the same time?

Apparently Carsen considers Falstaff to be one of the great masterpieces of music drama.  I suppose that’s not inconsistent with doing a pretty average production of it, but it’s a shame that he didn’t rise more to the occasion.  He’s updated it to the 1950s, having spotted a link between the emerging middle class in the 1590s and the increased prosperity of the 1950s.  He’s not the first to do this: Bill Alexander did a brilliant production of the Shakespeare for the RSC which did a similar updating.  It looked quite a bit more convincing than this.  I don’t think there were many kitchens quite like that in Windsor in the 1950s – nor did people take a carton of ice cream out of deep freezers – and I wasn’t sure why the Garter Inn was turned into some sort of plush gentleman’s club (with stabling).  To an extent, it didn’t matter: the production looked elegant, was slickly directed and didn’t frighten Rupert.  Most people in the audience seemed to love it.

The problem is that Richard Jones’s production at Glyndebourne updated the action to about ten years earlier and had a panache and accuracy that this just misses.  This production courts comparisons with that and, except possibly for the last scene, is on the losing side every time. There’s nothing massively wrong with it: it just isn’t as good.

Falstaff isn’t an easy opera.  It can often feel quite cold and rather calculated – too clever.  Falstaff and Mistress Quickly apart, it’s very easy for the characters to appear quite anonymous, almost like stock characters.  I didn’t feel that Carsen helped them gain much individuality: it was as if they were too busy following the elaborate routines to be allowed any particular personality. There is quite enough happening in the second scene without adding the comedy of other guests in the restaurant.

The cast was good but didn’t strike me as great.  Maestri has quite a lot going for him – a way with the words, a large figure and a nice, large voice.  What I missed was the sheer grandeur of the character, the pungency that Terfel or Gavanelli or Gobbi have brought, the sheer arrogant self-confidence.  It was a perfectly respectable performance in a role that needs a little more.

You got far more of this from Marie-Nicole Lemieux  as Quickly.  Very different from her “Brown Owl” performance at Glyndebourne, this was a gloriously ebullient, sexy performance that was beautifully judged and got just the right sort of comedy for the role.

There was nothing particularly wrong with anyone else, though Dalibor Jenis sounded a under par as Ford, Amanda Forsythe sounded lovely as Nannetta (the aria in the last scene was gorgeous) and Joel Prieto seemed very promising as Fenton.  Bu there was nothing that special either.

I liked Daniele Gatti’s conducting – it made it sound like a chamber piece with really thoughtful accompaniment and individual instruments allowed to shine.

If you’ve not booked, I’d give this a miss.  There’ll probably be a revival and, with any luck, Carsen will send an assistant and a different cast may well have more scope to be individual: there’s nothing here that a different cast given a shorter rein (and without competition from Rupert) couldn’t turn into something quite memorable.  If you have booked, it’s not a disaster.


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