Falstaff, music composed by Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito, Opera Vlaanderen, Antwerpen, Belgium, December 31st 2017, directed by Christoph Waltz, conducted by Tomáš Netopil, reviewed by TONY COOPER
With a libretto by Arrigo Boito based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and scenes from Henry IV (parts I & II), Falstaff – which received its première in February 1893 at La Scala, Milan – was the last of Verdi’s 28 operas and written as he was approaching the ripe old age of 80. It was also his second comedy and, indeed, his third work based on a Shakespeare play, following that of Macbeth and Otello.
A somewhat insubstantial plot revolves round the thwarted and farcical efforts of the well-loved fat old knight of Windsor, Sir John Falstaff, to seduce two married women to gain access to their husbands’ wealth.
This work is now part of the operatic repertoire worldwide but this was not always the case. Although the prospect of a new opera from Verdi generated great interest in Italy and around the world, Falstaff did not prove to be as popular as earlier works in the composer’s canon. After the initial performances in Italy, it fell into neglect until championed by Arturo Toscanini who insisted on its revival at La Scala and the New York Met in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many felt that the opera suffered from a lack of full-blooded melodies so much loved in Verdi’s previous operas, a view strongly contested by Toscanini. But conductors of the generation after him championed the work, including that famed trio – Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti.
The first performances outside the Kingdom of Italy were in Trieste and Vienna in May 1893, while the London première took place at Covent Garden a year later. Sir Thomas Beecham saw fit to revive it in 1919 but recalled in his memoirs that the public stayed away. ‘I’ve often been asked why I think Falstaff is not more of a box-office attraction,’ he said. ‘However, I don’t think the answer is far to seek. Let it be admitted that there are fragments of melody as exquisite and haunting as anything that Verdi has written elsewhere such as the duet of Nanetta and Fenton in the first act and the song of Fenton at the beginning of the final scene which have something of the lingering beauty of an Indian summer. But in comparison with every other work of the composer, it is wanting in tunes of a broad and impressive character and one or two of the type of ‘O Mia Regina’ (Don Carlos), ‘Ritorna Vincitor’ (Aida) or ‘Ora per sempre addio’ (Otello) might have helped the situation’.
Toscanini recognised that this was the view of many but he believed the work to be Verdi’s greatest opera. He predicted: ‘I believe it will take years and years before the general public will understand this masterpiece but when they do they’ll run to hear it like they do for Rigoletto and La Traviata.’
Audiences in Antwerp certainly bear this statement out judging by the full (and enthusiastic) houses that the run has received. This was the final performance in Antwerp before the company moves to its second house in the lovely Flemish town of Ghent in January for a further half-dozen performances starting on Wednesday 10th.
The total focus on this production, directed by Christoph Waltz, relied heavily on the cast who were a strong, forceful and remarkable bunch of singers who consistently hit the mark working mainly on a bare stage. The production worked remarkably well in such a Spartan and unusual setting. It was left to one’s imagination to envisage such famous settings as The Garter Inn and Windsor Great Park. But as Wagner once said, ‘imagination creates reality’.
Interestingly, Christoph Waltz – who was raised in Vienna in a musical household – is known more for his work in the cinema. He successfully portrayed SS officer Hans Lander, in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards (in which he won the first of two Oscars) as well as Dr King Schultz in Django Unchained. He made his Opera Vlaanderen début with Der Rosenkavalier in 2013. Engaging Mr Waltz is a bold move for Opera Vlaanderen and forms part of a wider initiative by the company to connect with actors and directors working outside of the opera genre.
And English National Opera has embraced the same thinking. Last year, for instance, they commissioned Olivier Award-winning actor, Rory Kinnear – who played Hamlet and Iago at the National – to direct Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
Falstaff centres on the ageing and conniving old knight Falstaff looking back at life when he was the slim page of the Duke of Norfolk. Based on one of Shakespeare’s most irresistible creations, Falstaff is a glutton like no other but he gets his come-uppance for trying to seduce not one but two married women. Craig Colclough in the pivotal role of Falstaff was strong and thoroughly convincing. He is always one step ahead of his motley deuce of vagabonds and Garter Inn cronies: Bardolph (Denzil Delaere) and Pistol (Markus Suihkonen). They put in performances that perfectly captured the personalities of their flawed characters.
Alice Ford and Meg Page – the target of Falstaff’s attention – forged an erstwhile and conniving partnership comprising the American soprano Jacqueline Wagner and the Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel, while Mistress Quickly was superbly sung and acted by the German mezzo-soprano (a former member of Deutsche Oper Berlin), Iris Vermillion. Smartly attired in an eye-catching two-piece suit, she was somewhat different in her presentation to the flappable (but lovable) character so often seen in Shakespeare.
There were many marvellous and enjoyable scenes in this production but none more so than that played out in Alice Ford’s garden when she and her daughter, Nanetta, head-over-heels in love with Master Fenton (portrayed exceedingly well by Anat Edri and Julien Behz) exchange stories with Meg Page and Mistress Quickly. Another highlight was when the four women plot the downfall of poor old Falstaff. A secret rendezvous is hurriedly arranged for Alice and Falstaff, while Bardolph and Pistol awkwardly introduces Mr Ford (played suavely by Johannes Martin Kränzle) to Falstaff under a different name.
When the curtain went up on act three, we see Falstaff sulking over his misfortune. Christoph Waltz sprang a surprise here. The setting (and depths) of Windsor Great Park – in which Falstaff is ridiculed in the darkness of the night as the antlered Black Hunter – was transported to the orchestra pit, while orchestra members removed to the stage positioned on a variety of vertically-built platforms with members of the chorus at the highest level.
Under the Czech-born conductor Tomáš Netopil, the orchestra played magnificently, capturing the essence and vitality of Verdi’s score.
Tony Cooper is QR’s opera critic