Perhaps I’m imagining things, but it seemed to me that after the quite unprecedented outburst of spontaneous disapproval that greeted Damiano Michieletto’s visually feeble, intellectually bankrupt and offensively irrelevant staging of Guillaume Tell at this address exactly one week ago, the audience tonight was almost equally audibly to be heard heaving a collective sigh of relief in the presence of this, the first revival of Robert Carsen’s 2012 production of Falstaff (Verdi’s last opera, just as Tell was Rossini’s). Oddly enough, much as I actively loathed Michieletto’s monstrosity – to the point that I was actually relieved the score was as cut to ribbons as it was, missing about 50’ of music, a fact which seems to have gone critically unremarked – I can’t say I actually like this Carsen confection so very much better, for all that its theatrical efficacy is undeniable. It’s just that I am thoroughly fed up with seeing operas arbitrarily removed from their time and place as written, only to be dumped either in the period of their composition, or – as here – in the 1950s (where you can bet money right now Richard Jones’ new La Bohème will wind up willy-nilly). Why? Where does it get us?

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I don’t know what the 1950s in England mean to you, either as social history or visual reference point: but I’m here to tell you that to me at least – whose proximity to the period in question might be rather closer than yours – it isn’t remotely as presented here, colourful, carefree and consumerist. So the general milieu of parti-coloured kitchens and oak-panelled kitsch conjured up by Paul Steinberg’s characteristically ugly, drearily symmetrical, pattern-obsessed sets – supposedly, according to the programme, located in grey, bomb-damaged, impoverished Windsor – is a complete fabrication, and not just therefore a temporal relocation, but a spatial one as well, because if this is Windsor, then it’s Windsor Ontario. Indeed, the entire mise-en-scène looks more like an episode of I Love Lucy or Bewitched, or any of those nauseatingly perky and aspirational American sitcoms from the post-war period, than anything into which the quintessentially English character of Falstaff might conceivably fit. There is also the bizarre treatment of Master Ford when disguised as Master Brook – “Signor Fontana”, cue the Scene by the Brook from Beethoven’s “Pastoral” in the orchestra – here done up, in ostensibly 1950s England, as a Texan oil baron straight out of Dallas, which makes no sense whatsoever even within the staging’s own revised visual parameters. In fact, if you want to see how Falstaff can function properly in the English, as opposed to North American,1950s, watch Richard Jones’ 2009 Glyndebourne staging (though even there, as in this Carsen show, the magical woodland-set closing scene is totally ruined, presumably deliberately, as part of both directors’ anti-romantic stance, which banishes Herne the Black Hunter’s blasted tree, here in favour of walls of plastic “oak” panelling that judder and crack when they move, and about as magically al fresco as a tax invoice).

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How I long for a director with the visual sensitivity and comedic flair of a Jean-Pierre Ponnelle to rescue this work from the dour semi-social critique mould into which it is now unceremoniously squeezed as a matter of unthinking routine Not to mention one who treats the comedy with a certain amount of taste and refinement rather than, as here, full-on Carry on Mugging mode. (Ponnelle’s 1977 Glyndebourne staging, with its breathtaking Herne’s Oak scene, remains unequalled in my experience, but all three of the ROH’s own stagings preceding this one – by Zeffirelli, Ronald Eyre and Graham Vick respectively – were better than the Carsen). So as usual it’s left to the singers and the conductor to make good the staging’s shortcomings. This can happen – as with the recent Don Giovanni, a pitiable travesty of a production to be sure, but stupendously sung, and with a tremendous sense of ensemble – but alas that doesn’t happen here.

Not that Ambrogio Maestri’s Falstaff is anything other than thoroughly effective and for the most part extremely well sung, with firm, even tone and considerable reserves of power (especially in the opening scene) though the mezza-voce serenade he sings when wooing Alice in Act II goes off the rails, and the small-note skills of singing grupetti and trills is beyond his ability to negotiate. But for me, he doesn’t begin to rival memories of, say, Tito Gobbi or (above all) Geraint Evans in the role, or in the present day, Terfel’s all-encompassing artistry. And I have to say that there does seem to me to be some indefinable qualitative difference between (give-or-take) normal-size singers having to play the fat knight padded up – as all the above did or do – and one who, uniquely in my experience, like Maestri, simply plays him as is, using his own ample bulk perfectly naturally (as one would expect) and with commendable adresse, but somehow without the element of larger-than-life exaggeration which is part-and-parcel of the character.

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Of the remaining nine named soloists in this opera, there is one who merits a special mention: Anna Devin, who is excellent, for all that she doesn’t strike me as a natural Nanetta (you want a Mozart singer for this: she sounds more like a Luisa Miller to me). Her singing of the Invocation to the fairies in Act III was exquisite, and her firm emission – available for leisurely inspection across note-values of extraordinary length – was everywhere welcome. More than welcome, in fact, because – with the honourable exceptions of her, Maestri and Peter Hoare’s stentorian Dr. Caius – this was easily the worst-sung Falstaff I ever remember hearing. I have never heard such a hard-voiced, unlovely-sounding, utterly throttled Alice in my life, every note a gargled fluster of blowsy vibrato, nor such an ugly, strangulated, barking Ford (Ainhoa Arteta and Roland Wood, local role debuts both, and hopefully their simultaneous farewells). The fact that the former seems a lively stage presence is neither here nor there given the quality of her singing. And then there is Agnes Zwierko’s Mistress Quickly, a performance so vocally inadequate I was wondering whether – nay, praying that – she might vanish in the interval “indisposed” to be replaced by someone who could actually sing a single note either audibly, or in tune, or without sounding like a car engine juddering on a cold morning. She can act: unfortunately she also attempts to sing, and she really shouldn’t. I saw Regina Resnik and Marilyn Horne in this role. Get a grip, people.

Given such lamentable leads, I suppose it’s hardly sporting to point out that Kai Rüütel’s voice, on this showing, isn’t holding up well either (as Meg Page), or that the lowering Lukas Jakobski’s seems to have shrunk to a hollow, barely audible honk (as Pistol). But I will anyway. Worse, poor Luis Gomes has a tough, fibrous herniatenor sound with no real point or headroom at the top, so his Fenton, that touchstone of silvery youthfulness, here emerged sounding simply strained and leathery, though he rallied somewhat in Act III (though not enough). Michael Schonwandt – who hasn’t been in the house for ten years, since Nielsen’s Maskerade in 2005 – conducts a reasonably lithe and attentive account of the score, rather short on glitter and brilliance (like most of the singing) and without either Davis’ autumnal glow or Haitink’s unwonted ebullience, but one which nevertheless gets there in the end by dint of careful balances and tight ensemble (nothing of Giulini’s late and leaden orgy of gloom either, thank God). Decent playing and choral singing too. But unless you feel you must see Ambrogio Maestri in his signature role – over 250 performances thus far, with much counting to come, I’m sure – or are a devotee of Ms. Devin (which is understandable), the standard of singing of all the other major, and several minor, roles in this revival is simply too low to merit attendance. And who’s to blame for that, I wonder?

2.5 stars

Stephen Jay-Taylor

(Photos : Catherine Ashmore from the 2012 production)

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