Falstaff - Royal Opera House, 15 May 2012 (production premiere)
A star was born at Covent Garden last night. Poised and stately, his lean-muscled frame and liquid brown eyes drew every gaze his way. A frisson ran through the whole audience as each flick of his silky hair hinted at an impending intention to leave his mark on the stage.
Yes, Rupert the horse certainly saved the show.
Robert Carsen’s new production begins as a deliciously detailed farce where not a gesture, not a word lacks a purpose. Falstaff’s ancestral tweeds and oak panelling battle the formica and shiny suits of the Ford set as the decline of the aristocracy is set against the post-war rise of the middle class.
But then the opera’s tone changes, and Carsen’s concept can’t quite keep up. The equine intervention is a necessary distraction from the otherworldly improbabilities of the final act and their unwilling surrender to Carsen's ‘50s suburban setting.
Of course none of the humans could compete with the talented Rupert, but some came close. The magnificent beast in the title role was Ambrogio Maestri, whose manor-born portrayal has increased in girth and pith since I first saw him in Vienna four years ago. Switching between blustery parlando and elegantly spun lines he hinted at the noble lineage beneath the oafish exterior.
Falstaff himself was defiantly English, but I left unsure whether Carsen’s setting was Windsor, Berks or Windsor CT. Like some of the other ladies, Ana Maria Martinez’s perky and lyrically sung Alice Ford seemed more American than English - and her prairie-wide kitchen was a luxury native housewives could only dream of.
Audience favourite Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s fruity Mistress Quickly on the other hand could have stepped straight out of a Carry On film. So too could the hilarious double act of Alasdair Elliot (short) and Lukas Jakobski (tall), who turned Bardolph and Pistol's few lines of singing into finely-drawn lowlife characterisations.
Joel Prieto’s limply sung Fenton was a bit of a disappointment (really, ROH, I know you can’t find the Siegfrieds these days – but Fenton?). Amanda Forsythe’s charming Nannetta was some compensation.
Though scoreless, Daniele Gatti investigated every nook and cranny of Verdi’s score with a forensic thoroughness that matched Carsen’s eye for detail. It was a musicianly reading that hit the mark intellectually without ever quite sweeping you up and carrying you away, though his preference for dramatically effective over merely pretty singing was welcome.
production photos (above) Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House
curtain call photos (below) intermezzo.typepad.com