In the first item of their Japanese tour, the Teatro alla Scala seems to have decided to show Japanese audiences that in the Verdi’s 200th anniversary, you cannot go more authentic than with La Scala: Falstaff was first performed there in 1893. Furthermore, this evening’s prima donna is Milanese herself and the singer in the title role is from Lombardy too. However, the inspiration for Verdi (and Boito) is Shakespeare – and director Robert Carsen has decided, in this co-production from the Milanese theatre, the Royal Opera House, the Canadian Opera Company, the Metropolitan Opera House and, what else?… ah, the Nederlandse Opera, to delve into Englishness. On stage, no visual cliché about England is spared: wood paneling, leather armchairs, hunting apparel, tea parties etc. The results are pleasant to the eyes in warm colors and economy of resources. In terms of Personenregie, there is no complex concept to perform here: Sir John Falstaff, Mr and Mrs. Ford, Mrs. Quickly behave very much like normal people (I mean, like normal people in a staged comedy), what is refreshing for a change.
If there was something actually English in this Falstaff, this was conductor Daniel Harding. As I have often here said, Falstaff is no favorite opera of mine, but I have had the luck to find persuasive advocates in the conductors whom I’ve seen live in the theatre – James Levine back in the Metropolitan Opera and Daniele Gatti in Paris. Harding too is a conductor who places the orchestra in the centre of the proceedings – the Filarmonica della Scala played with great animation, offering the conductor the raw, flashy colors he needed for his ebullient approach to the score. Everything shone, sparkled and moved forward this afternoon. True clarity in ensembles was not really there, but the overall conviction would make you overlook that. What one could not overlook was the lack of lightness and sense of humor. You just have to pick your old Karajan CDs to see how famously Schwarzkopf, Barbieri, Taddei and the Philharmonia Orchestra were enjoying themselves. In comparison, this evening sounded a bit manic. In any case, I don’t want to give a false impression – this performance was fun, but – in terms of music – not always very funny.
Being funny is not a problem for Ambrogio Maestri. He is my kind of Falstaff – he is not trying to be funny at all and that makes him even funnier. He is entirely at ease with the music, the text, the character. Even when his voice shows some rough patch, he makes it part of his interpretation. And the sheer volume and darkness makes his Falstaff a little bit more threatening than with singers who go all for buffoonery. Although Daniela Barcellona’s mezzo lies a bit high for the part, she too has more than the measure of her role – and her spacious chest voice is very aptly used here. Her scenes with Maestri were actually the highlights today. I took a while to recognise Barbara Frittoli’s voice this afternoon. At first, she sounded uncannily like Maria Chiara, but gradually her velvety, slightly astringent soprano began to sound like itself. In any case, she was in good, flexible voice and handled the text with naturalness and spirit. As Ford, Massimo Cavaletti was a bit blustery, but well cast nonetheless. The voice is, of course, Italianate and firm, not truly penetrating in its higher reaches, but hearable enough. At first, Irina Lungu’s soprano seemed too grown-up and smoky-toned for Nanetta, but she can float long high notes without effort and keeps a beautiful singing line too. If her Fenton, Antonio Poli, did not sound suave enough at first, he finally sang his “aria” with elegance and imagination. Meg is a difficult role and I find that it only works when cast with a beautiful-voiced singer. Otherwise, it disappears in background. Laura Polverelli was not in excellent voice and sounded squally and overvibrant this afternoon.