From two to three. I am not referring to the hour that the merry wife Mrs. Alice Ford reserves for her gallant visitor, but to the number of productions of the Verdi masterpiece that Luca Ronconi has staged in his long career. The second one, opulent and technologically elaborate, was commissioned by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 2006, scoring an enormous popular and critical success. With the current one, inaugurated last year in Bari, Ronconi does a complete U turn delivering a mise-en-scène that can be safely called minimalistic. The director himself states it in the programme notes: “There will be very few props on stage; everything is written in the score and there is no need to add one more thing. Moreover, it seemed to me that insisting on its picturesque character does not serve the opera well”. Ronconi underlines his not being previously able to find a house with the ideal dimensions for such an “intimate” opera. In part he is right, especially if we consider Verdi’s initial idea to premiere it in his villa at Sant’Agata, but in doing so he gives the impression that he is repudiating his previous efforts. The few elements to which he was referring are large white canvases functioning as walls and that in his intentions should reduce the space. On stage, amidst a number of disorderly heaped up props, the protagonist’s bed stands out, on which he falls asleep during the passage between the first and second scene of Act III, suggesting the possibility that forest rendez-vous is but a dream: while Falstaff sleeps, the gigantic oak of Herne is lowered upside down almost grazing his head.
Since the action is transposed to the period of the creation of the opera, the female characters come and go riding antique bicycles of various shape, while the men barge in on a wooden tractor that would not have been out of place in an International Expo of the time. In contrast with the near-absence of sets (by Tiziano Santi), quite comely were Maurizio Millenotti’s costumes, while Aj Weissbard’s lighting design made itself conspicuous only in the last scene. Considering the bare nature of the production, a deeper work on the acting would have been beneficial: instead, the singers were largely abandoned to their own routine means, with the notable exception of Ambrogio Maestri, who was much more sombre and menacing than your average Falstaff. Maestri, with over two hundred performances already to his credit, has become the Falstaff of reference for our times. While his baritone is undoubtedly first rate, powerful and torrential, his high register, at least in the performance under review, showed at times signs of uncertainty, such as the slightly flat high G of “no, no, no!” at the end of Act I. He displayed the most evident problems, often recurring to falsettos, when he was required to sing piano at the top of his range that (in the same monologue the E natural of the phrase “C’è dell’aria che vola”, or yet before the F sharp of “Io sono ancora una piacente estate di San Martino”, and even more conspicuously the same note at the beginning of the duet with Alice Ford, the phrase “alfin t’ho colto raggiante fior!). Eva Mei, our Alice, an artist with exquisite technique and taste, and until recently one of the leading coloratura sopranos, was ill at ease in a role that lies in the middle and low zone, which in her case has not matured or darkened with age; besides, from such a bel-cantista a good trill would have been appreciated, if not expected. Laura Polverelli as Meg showed a choppy and fatigued vocal delivery, combined with a colourless timbre. Ekaterina Sadovnikova was nothing more than an acceptable Nannetta: her timbre is pretty but lacking that ethereal and diaphanous quality necessary to vaporously float all those high As. Elena Zilio, who has been for decades one of the most appreciated professionals of Italian opera, still shines for her elegant phrasing, which allows her to give life to a convincing Mrs. Quickly, despite the discernible signs of vocal oxidation and the absence of a true contralto register: it was her unquestionable class and style, rather than her chest notes in “Reverenza” to leave a mark. Roberto de Candia (Ford) has never had a very powerful and sizable instrument, and the direct confrontation with Maestri in the duet between Ford and Falstaff did not turn out in his favour: he was all but crushed in every sense (let us not forget that Maestri is almost two metres tall and quite portly). On the other hand he possesses a fine technique, a homogeneous and round instrument, and thanks to his long and fruitful association with the buffo repertoire, he was particularly funny in Ford’s moments of sputtering rage – the rapid patter (”Chiudete le porte!”, etc.) in Act II, Scene 2, for example, was enough to make the audience breathless with empathy. The Pugliese baritone, who created the role of Falstaff in the Bari unveiling of this production, is going to sing it again in a few of these Florentine performances. Yijie Shi as Fenton was nothing short of superlative for his smooth vocal production, breath control and easiness above the stave: the Act III sonnet, woven with spectacular pianissimos (what a wonder was the ascent to the high G sharp in the phrase “al suo fonte rivola”) has been seldom performed with such suaveness, fully respecting Verdi’s marking “dolcissimo” on virtually every phrase. Carlo Bosi is currently the most requested Dr. Cajus, and rightly so, and it is difficult to imagine a more visually convincing pair than Gianluca Sorrentino (Bardolfo) and Mario Luperi (Pistola).
But Falstaff is not a singers but a conductor opera. Zubin Mehta gave a brilliant rendition of this difficult and complex “revolution in C major”, as Massimo Mila brilliantly defined it., which at first sight may look and sound simple but in reality is a pure and fine cloth woven in an intricate and complex yet always rational manner. What really matters in Falstaff are precision, rhythm, spontaneity and the continuity of the narration, all qualities Mehta achieved and delivered, together with a calibrated balance between pit and stage. At times he pumped up the volume so that one would have believed he stumbled into a performance of Otello. There were many precious gems in his conducting and a good example occurred near the end of Act II, Scene I: after Ford’s monologue, the violent orchestral crescendo suddenly gave way to an enchanting violin melody, as Falstaff reentered the room dressed in his finery. Mehta had his strings phrase this passage rather expansively, with a hint of glissando on the raising fifths in the third and fourth bar of the tune, to wonderful, sly, graceful effect. One more example: in the final scene, during the mock-exorcism ritual, Flastaff sings the phrase “Ma salvagli l’addomine” four times. Each time, his voice was double by two flutes and two oboes; Mehta balanced the passage in such a way as to emphasize the oboes, and Maestri precisely matched his timbre and rate of vibrato to their playing. The performance was filled with such moments of insight.
Reading the word “sold out” upon entering the opera house is always reassuring, especially for such a troubled musical institution such as the Fondazione Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. This time the house was filled to capacity, and the audience welcomed the performance with enthusiasm, addressed to everyone and Maestri in particular.