was the culmination of Verdi’s long career as an opera composer. He had talked of retirement after the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera
in 1858 and believed he had laid down his compositional pen after Aida
in 1871. Nearly a decade later, persuaded by his publisher, he embarked on a rewriting of Simon Boccanegra
opera, premiered in 1857. This involved him working with Arrigo Boito, an accomplished librettist and also a composer; it was an association Verdi came to relish. The revised Boccanegra
was a success at La Scala in 1881 and showed that even at the age of 68 Verdi’s inner genius was alive and well. Ricordi and Boito subtly pointed Verdi towards Shakespeare’s Otello
. Verdi loved and revered Shakespeare above any other poet. Slowly, via constant personal contact and communication, Otello
was written. It was premiered at La Scala, six years after the revised Boccanegra
. Verdi was then 74 years of age and really did think he had finished operatic composition. He had not allowed for Boito. Three years after the premiere of Otello
Verdi wrote to a friend: “What can I tell you? I’ve wanted to write a comic opera for forty years, and I’ve known ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ for fifty … however, the usual buts … and I don’t know if I will ever finish it …I am enjoying myself.” Boito’s vital contribution in enabling Verdi to match Shakespeare was in his capacity for drawing out a taut libretto from the plays concerned. Boito reduced Otello
by six sevenths and in Falstaff
he trims the twenty-three characters in The Merry Wives
to just ten. Verdi wrote Falstaff,
his third opera based on Shakespeare, for his own enjoyment. Inevitably during its composition his mind must have wondered back to the tragic domestic circumstances of the death of his wife and children; events that surrounded the failure of his only other comic opera, Il Giorno di Regno
, at La Scala in 1840. With Falstaff
, the outcome was utterly different. Verdi’s 28th and final opera, “my little enjoyment”, as he called it, was all he could have hoped for and was a triumph at its premiere at La Scala on 9 February 1893. The greatest Italian composer ever was 80 years of age. It was a magnificent operatic culmination to a great career as an opera composer.
The musical form of Falstaff
follows that of Otello
. There is no turning back to the old form of the great middle period trio of Rigoletto
, La Traviata
and Il Trovatore
with recitative and cabalettas. The music moves constantly, albeit not wholly seamlessly as there are arias to go along with the concerted ensembles. Verdi’s orchestration in Falstaff
, with its final fugue, represents challenges to even the best of the conductors with a natural feel for the Verdian melodic line and idiom. In this performance, Danielle Gatti, Music Director of the Orchestre National de France as well as Zurich Opera, brings the strands of the music together in a masterful way, allowing the humour to flow and zip along with a mixture of vitality and élan whilst always aware of the needs of the singers; big pluses in this work.
Add a singing cast led by Ambrogio Maestri in the title role and Barbara Fritolli as Alice Ford and there is a lot going for this performance. The last time I saw Maestri, ten years or so ago, it was as Falstaff conducted by Sir Mark Elder at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in a semi-staged performance. He was a late replacement and Elder told the audience, in a pre talk, that we would recognise him as he had the perfect figure du part
. He certainly dominates the stage physically and, more importantly he also does so vocally. A true baritone in his vocal prime he is a pleasure to hear after too many geriatric singers with threadbare tone essaying the role. Maestri’s varied facial contortions match his wide variety of vocal colour and nuance. I cannot remember when I last heard a singer able to go from sotto voce
, including falsetto
on a thread of tone, to forte
with such seamless ease. His strength of voice, without any spread, in Falstaff’s Honour Monologue
as he harangues Bardolph and Pistol (CH.4) exemplifies the singer’s many vocal virtues. Add his vocal acting and more conversational style as Falstaff recovers from his dipping in the Thames (CHs.19-20) to his contribution in the final scene and this issue starts with many pluses.
To Maestri’s masterful performance I must add that of Barbara Fritolli as Alice. Dressed, of which more anon, in a lovely late twentieth century style blue couture dress, with plunging neckline which suits her figure to perfection, she sings with refulgent tone and excellent characterisation to add to her committed acting. She plays the perfect foil to Falstaff’s carnal intentions and her husband’s suspicions and machinations in respect of their daughter Nannetta. Of the clutch of Windsor women Fritolli is by far the best of a good team. As her daughter, Eva Liebau has the ideal lightness of voice and floats some lovely phrases. Regrettably she has a tendency to let a touch too much of loose vibrato intrude, particularly in the last scene (CH. 25). Judith Schmid as Meg, also dressed elegantly as befits a Windsor lady, and Yvonne Naeff as Quickly, are more than adequate, the latter acting particularly well. Massimo Cavalletti’s Ford is sung with secure tone and variety of colour to add to his vocal strength in his monologue of jealousy as he thinks Falstaff has access to his wife by prior arrangement (CH.12).
As the singing has quality and consistency, it is all the more frustrating that the production, set and costumes are a mélange of inconsistencies. Whilst at least Ford looks the part of a moneyed country gent in plus-fours, Falstaff and his two hangers-on appear in scene one in what might be called fifteenth century, the latter in identical tapestry tunics and stripped pantaloons and wearing excessive wigs. We know that Falstaff is on his financial uppers, but there is no sign of quality or colour at all in his dress as he goes courting the ladies. Dr. Caius calls on Falstaff for his debts in bowler hat and white mac. It appears the rascals have his pants and that is, with insults, how they get rid of him after some physical skirmishes. Bardolph has no red nose for the doctor to examine and therefore none for Falstaff to recognise in the last scene, both situations being in the libretto. More questionable is the situation where it is the ladies that lift the laundry basket and tip Falstaff into the Thames from the window; this after a bevy of henchmen had failed even to shift it very far on the ground!
As to the set, I trouble to find a description. It is the same basis in the three acts and is a shoe-box shape with an apex roof with the supports on show. In scene one, the only props are modern table and chairs with the back wall having two window spaces, through which Bardolph and Pistol peek as Falstaff receives Mistress Quickly. In the Ford home there are shrubs and later pleasant flowered wallpaper as well as elegant white benches for furniture. Act three opens with the shoebox space completely empty and with Falstaff looking bedraggled on what looks like a steeply-sloped half haystack where the back wall had been. The slope and absence of any props mean that the ladies and Ford have to peer over nothing, and maintain difficult balance, to overhear Quickly tempt Falstaff to Windsor Park that night. Only in that last scene is there any sense of magic in the half-light, and even then the direction of the conclusion is rather wooden.
The associated booklet has an essay with some background to the opera as well as views of the conductor and director seeking to justify their take on the opera. This, and an act-by-act synopsis, undivided by scenes, is given in English, German and French. The video director manages his duties with a nice balance.
Alongside Ambrogio Maestri, the other great interpreter of Falstaff in the present day is Bryn Terfel. I fail to understand why Welsh National Opera’s 1988 production has never made it to wider circulation. It was by the eminent film producer Peter Stein, one of his earliest operatic efforts, revived and refreshed by him in 2005. It featured Terfel (see review
), and was filmed and shown on Welsh language TV. Meanwhile those wanting to see Maestri, with a few less chins, in a well thought-through production should try his interpretation at La Scala in 2001 based on a staging of 1913. In a strong cast Maestri sings alongside Fritttoli as Alice with Roberto Frontali a strong Ford and Juan Diego Florez an enchanting Fenton and conducted by Riccardo Muti (Euroarts 2051728).
Robert J Farr