At 80 years old, Giuseppe Verdi wrote his last opera, Falstaff, on an inspired libretto by poet and composer Arrigo Boito, based mostly on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The great maestro famously said he wrote this opera for himself: not for the public, nor for the singers, but just for himself. The score is, indeed, one of the finest Verdi has produced; it’s almost a meditation on his own music, an experiment in orchestration. It is, then, understandable that a fine conductor like Gianandrea Noseda would be led to explore every detail of the score, and make the orchestra the protagonist of the evening: a mighty protagonist, producing a beautiful sound, full of colours and nuances. Unfortunately, the volume of the orchestra also took centre stage, often drowning the singers, and resulting in an unbalanced performance.

Sir Bryn Terfel (Falstaff)
© Judith Schlosser (2011)

The story revolves around Sir John Falstaff, an ageing, impoverished bon viveur, devoted to food, wine and beautiful women. His self-confidence is irresistible: fat, old, scruffy, he believes “he’s still got it” with the ladies, and ends up being mercilessly mocked by the merry wives, who pretend to accept his courtship just to throw him in the river in the first act finale. Director Sven-Eric Bechtolf leaves the plot pretty much exactly as written in the libretto, with a mixture of styles in Marianne Glittenberg's costumes indicating different time periods: Falstaff and his servants have more traditional medieval costumes, while the bourgeois are dressed as at the beginning of the 20th century. Rolf Glittenberg's set uses the same stylised large structure (almost a barn) for both the Garter Inn and the Ford’s mansion, while the Windsor Forest of the last act is represented by a video of the branches or the roots of the large oak tree filling the backstage, with Jürgen Hoffmann's very appropriate lighting effects conjuring the pagan world of witches and fairies. Overall, the production is not particularly original, but convincing and lively.

Sir Bryn Terfel sang Falstaff in this revival, his stately figure very suited to the character (aided by a fake belly), relishing in his portrayal of the old rogue, with an impressive stage presence and interpretation. His voice, unfortunately, seemed a bit out of sorts: his breathing didn’t seem on point, and he was clearly not at ease in many high passages, often resorting to tricks of the trade to navigate around them. As an experienced singer, he managed to give a convincing performance. I can only hope it was just an off night; I had the pleasure of hearing him two weeks ago in a concert in Zurich, where he sounded in much better voice.

Sir Bryn Terfel (Falstaff)
© Judith Schlosser (2011)

Alice Ford was Irina Lungu, her high, full soprano very suited to the part. Marianna Pizzolato was Mistress Quickly, her mezzo rooted in a solid technique; she avoided any exaggerations and sang with judicious restraint, for a funny, stylish interpretation. Meg was Niamh O’Sullivan, who gave us an accomplished performance with her bronzed mezzo.

Nannetta (daughter of the Fords) and Fenton were Sandra Hamaoui and Cyrille Dubois, two voices very suited to the young lovers, and a youthful physique perfect for the part. Bechtolf uses the expedient of freezing the scene for their love duets. Hardly an original idea, but it is very effective; while the grown-ups are busy plotting and intriguing, the youngsters are lost in their own world of enchantment. Hamaoui’s very high, silvery soprano ended up getting a bit lost in the Philharmonia Zürich's wall of sound, but her rendition of “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” was charming. Dubois’ light and elegant tenor was perfect for Fenton, singing “Dal labbro il canto” with a sort of surprise in his voice, a very effective choice.

Sir Bryn Terfel (Falstaff)
© Judith Schlosser (2011)

Ford, Alice’s husband, was Konstantin Shushakov, who gave a remarkable, almost tragic rendition of his aria “È sogno? O realtà?”, where he succumbs to his jealousy, certain that his wife is planning to betray him. His smooth baritone showed very beautiful high notes and a convincing legato. Dr Cajus was Iain Milne, whose high, bright tenor was very effective in the first scene, where he showed brilliant comic flair.  The cast was completed by Nathan Haller as Bardolfo and Brent Michael Smith as Pistola, Falstaff's two servants, who gave committed, convincing performances, both on the vocal and the acting side.

***11