There are some great performances in an amusing new production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” (1893) at the Royal Opera House in London. Yet Rupert the horse manages to outshine everyone else on stage.
Director Robert Carsen sets the action in the 1950s, an era which has been so over-exploited in recent opera updatings that it feels like “return to factory settings” mode.
No matter. With its glamorous frocks, class hierarchies and gender conservatism, it still provides a serviceable background for this tale of a clever middle-class woman who outwits a foolish old member of the nobility. Carsen manages to ring some funny and thoughtful changes out of it.
There’s plenty of lively business and background detail in the Shakespeare-based tale, and it looks sumptuous. Falstaff lives messily in an old oak-paneled hotel where he tries to avoid paying his bills. Alice Ford, the unwitting object of his lust, has an ultra-expensive modern kitchen decorated in pastel greens and pinks. We see aristocratic poverty meeting new bourgeois wealth.
After he has been unceremoniously dumped in the Thames as a punishment for his amorous folly, Falstaff crawls into a stable to dry off. This is where he laments his gray hair and foolishness, and where he meets Rupert the horse.
Rupert nods sagely at every statement, then chews on his hay. When Falstaff reflects that his big belly kept him afloat in the river, he kindly passes a sugar lump to his new friend so that he can get nice and plump too.
Later the sturdy Rupert is even able to support the weight of title-role baritone Ambrogio Maestri, who is 6 foot 6 inches and of Falstaffian proportions. A beautiful image is created when Falstaff rides into the moonlit and mysterious Windsor Park for a rendezvous in the final act. “Love makes beasts of us all,” he muses, patting his steed fondly.
Rupert is mostly, though not always, imperturbable. Sometimes he turns to the somewhat wayward conductor Daniele Gatti, fixing him with a steely glare. If I were Gatti, I’d start filling my pockets with propitiatory sugar lumps.
In short, Rupert is the undoubted star of the show, despite some fine human performances. Ana Maria Martinez sings the soaring lines of wily Alice Ford with rich ease, and plenty of comic variety.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux gets the biggest laughs as Mistress Quickly, a woman who relishes the chance to become a vampish go- between in the affairs of her friend Alice. Amanda Forsythe (Nannetta) and Joel Prieto (Fenton) make a handsome and sweet- sounding couple of young lovers.
And Falstaff himself? Maestri’s voice is so powerful and warm it easily could heat the whole auditorium, and the famous denunciation of honor provides vocal thrills.
His acting is another matter, and there’s not enough lust in the early episodes or fear in the final scene when Falstaff believes he’s being attacked by evil spirits. The emotions feel generic rather than detailed.
Maestri’s immense physical presence ensures that he never loses authority on stage, and his natural fitness for the role is a bonus.
“All the world’s a jest,” sings Falstaff at the end. After a patchy few months at the Royal Opera, it’s great to find something to laugh about again.
On May 30, the production will be relayed to 15 BP Summer Big Screens around the U.K.
T* What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless T*
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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