*All the world’s a joke …” so ends one of the greatest of operas: Verdi’s Falstaff. Written at the end of his life it is a work of great joy, laughter and a touch of melancholy. As the aging Falstaff is let in on the joke that has been played on him, he, his cronies and the rest of the residents of Windsor, remind us that in the end we are all the butt of a joke and the best thing to do is laugh at it all.
On Saturday night at the opening of Teatro dell’Opera’s season it was the opera going public who seemed to be the butt of a not very funny joke. The first sign of trouble was the multiple cast lists: in eight performances there are 4 Falstaffs, 3 Alices, 3 Fords, 3 Nannettas, 2 Fentons and 2 Mistress Quicklys plus two conductors sharing the podium. And none of the cast remains the same for more than 2 of the performances. Now above all Falstaff is an ensemble opera – except for two rather lovely, and slightly intrusive arias and a great monologue it is mostly a work of ensembles and small ariettas. It depends on close interaction between the singers, a great deal of subtlety from a conductor and the sure touch of a director. All three were missing on Saturday night.
This was billed as a “new” production by Franco Zeffirelli, the once respected director-designer who has lately become the butt of not a few jokes himself because of some frankly outrageous behavior. This production was “new” back in 1964 when I saw and was enchanted by it at the Old Metropolitan Opera. I remember it as a wonder of beautiful design and witty staging that seemed to wed perfectly with the miraculous score. The designs have changed little – though what were once stands of hollyhocks in the Ford’s garden have turned into some sort of day glow flowers that had been overfed MiracleGro – and are still lovely to look at. However what is not acceptable are the 10 and 15 minutes intervals between scenes that it takes to change them. Falstaff may be the work of an old man but it demands quicksilver in the performing. And the Zeffirelli staging has coarsened along with the designs. I recall Luigi Alva as Fenton nestled in the crux of the Great Oak singing his aria bathed in moonlight – here the fine young American tenor Taylor Stayton just wandered aimlessly in a cloud of stage fog. And for the most part the singers were going through the motions listlessly and mechanically. I will borrow a word from Laurent who, though he had not seen that 1964 production, had the feeling that the whole thing had been “reheated”.
One of the glories of that 1964 production was the conducting of Leonard Bernstein and another the remarkable ensemble cast. Though Asher Fisch has shown himself to be a fine conductor in several venues he has come to Falstaff a little too early in his career. This is a score that demands a fine balance between stage and pit that was missing on Saturday night. Often the singers were swamped by the orchestra and Arrigo Boito’s brilliant text, so integral in this opera, was inaudible. There were also problems with coordination between stage and pit during the finale of Act 1 and the wayward horns had some problem with their key passages in Ford’s jealousy monologue.
Photo: Rome Opera – Falsini
It gives me little or no pleasure to write this next paragraph as I have the greatest respect for this singer and what he has achieved. Back in 1982 Renato Bruson sang a wonderful Sir John under Carlo Maria Guilini and he has sung it many times since. It is a role that he once inhabited and could rightfully claim as his own but at 74 he no longer has the power to make the big moments memorable and was often inaudible. L’Onore! Lardri!, Va vecchio John and Quand’ero paggio went for very little and he honestly had some difficulty with the stage movements. Only in the scene outside the tavern as the drenched Falstaff bemoans his sorry state did his Fat Knight take flight. Perhaps it is now time for Bruson to allow us to hold on to our memories of his past performances and gracefully retire from the stage.
Carlos Alvarez was a fine in not particularly individual Ford shining briefly in the Jealousy monologue and Stayton was a mellifluous Fenton both in his aria and in the duets and ensembles, he is a young singer to watch. Mario Bolognesi, Patrizio Saudelli and Carlo di Cristoforo gave generalized portrayals of Caius, Bardolfo and Pistola.
Bottom: Act 3, Scene 2 – The arrival of Nannetta as the Fairy Queen in Windsor Forest.
Photos: Rome Opera – Falsini.
Of the quartet of women the two lower voices were the most satisfactory. Francesca Franci did what could be done with Mistress Page and Elisabetta Fiorillo sang with good humour if not all the required deep velvet of Quicklys of the past. Myrtò Papatanasiu appears to be a Rome favorite these days and she has sung both a fine Nedda and I understand a very well-received Violetta here in the past year however she was out of her depth as Alice. Her voice was almost lost in the nero Cacciator narrative and it did not soar over the Gaie comari di Windsor ensemble. I felt she would have been happier cast as Nannetta. Lauro Giordano’s Nannetta sang a lovely Sul fil d’un suffio esesio but prior to that her voice had been thin sounding and at one point noticeably off pitch.
The wonder of the evening was Verdi and his collaboration with Boito: Falstaff is a masterpiece. It is an opera made up of small miracles and the big miracle was that even with a tired production and less than inspired conducting and singing the genius of this remarkable work still shone through.
26 gennaio – Santi Timoteo e Tito