No place for boorish boos at sumptuous new Falstaff
Thursday, May 17, 2012
The reaction of sections of the audience at Tuesday night’s unveiling of a brand new Falstaff at the Royal Opera House was uncalled for, unjustified – and boorish. I didn’t join in the jeers at the end of the recent, controversial, Rusalka, but I could understand the reaction amidst fairly widespread antipathy towards what was a rather bizarre production (albeit Rusalka is an opera that lends itself to weird stagings) and I doubt we’ll see it in London again.
Robert Carsen’s new Falstaff – like Rusalka a co-production, this with La Scala and the Canadian Opera Company – is set in 1950s England, roughly the same era picked by Richard Jones for his Glyndebourne production three years ago (which, incidentally, shared the same excellent Mistress Quickly in Marie-Nicole Lemieux). I can’t see any fundamental problem in transplanting Shakespeare’s characters from one Elizabethan era to another a few centuries later and, for the most part, Paul Steinberg’s handsome sets and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s colourful costumes work well (my reservations centre mainly on the final two scenes) and there are some inspired touches in Carsen and Peter van Praet’s lighting.
So what’s not to like? You could argue that the production is still undercooked and I would expect a few adjustments in time for the live relay – part of the World Shakespeare Festival – on May 30 to screens around the country, including Trafalgar Square in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester as well as Cardiff and Edinburgh. But in its key elements this Falstaff has the ingredients you need to tackle arguably the greatest of all comic operas – I might argue, indeed, that this swansong completed in the composer’s 80th year, and his only comedy apart from the youthful Un giorno di regno, is actually the pinnacle of Verdi’s achievement, though that is for another day.
What we do have here is a splendid Falstaff in Ambrogio Maestri, more subtle and less bombastic than many, someone for whom one can feel real pangs of pity. His is a rich sonorous voice and his characterisation thoughtful. The cast generally is not one of Covent Garden’s starriest, which possibly explains the special deals that are available for tickets for some performances, but that doesn’t detract from a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The wives are upwardly mobile gossipy ladies of the post-war era – they share some of Verdi’s yummiest music – and I must reserve special mention for Amanda Forsythe’s Nanetta: her repeated refrains with her Fenton are meltingly beautiful.
Add to the mix urgent and exciting direction from Daniele Gatti in the pit and a house orchestra, as so often, in sparkling form and – I ask again – what’s not to like? It’s not my purpose here to dissect the production and I’m not arguing that everything works (it is still a work in progress) but if I don’t like something my remedy is to withhold my applause. It was good to see that the negative reactions of a minority on Tuesday spurred the majority to intensify their applause, but I would hate to see opera houses, directors and production teams deterred from attempting innovative interpretations or solutions for fear of audience hostility.
Not everything works – the consensus is probably that Rusalka didn’t – but please preserve us from the day that fear of failure inhibits making the attempt.