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Before I say anything about this evening’s performance, I must warn you that I cannot say that I really like Verdi’s Falstaff. I acknowledge the ingeniousness and creativity, but the music does not really pluck any string in my heart. The last time I have seen it live in 2005 at the Met, I remember I wrote that, if James Levine’s irreproachable performance had not convinced me to like it, I would probably never do it.  Although that performance has many similarities to the one I have seen today at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, I can say I am getting closer to enjoy the work than I thought.

First of all, as much as James Levine, Daniele Gatti is a conductor with a symphonic approach to this work. If my memory does not fail me, there is one crucial difference – while Levine’s rich-toned almost-Straussian performance gave pride of place to musical values, setting the orchestra as the real “soloist”, Gatti achieved the right balance between dramatic and musical values, rendering the graphic effects in the score with almost unfailing precision and taking care never to drawn his singers in thick orchestral sound – and yet the Orchestre Nationale de France produced multicoloured, translucent, expressive sounds.

As much as in the Met performance, a British singer took the title role. Curiously, back in 2005, Bryn Terfel was indisposed and could barely sing the final act. Unfortunately, Anthony Michaels-Moore also happened to be sick today, but agreed to sing nonetheless. The similarities between these singers end here. While Terfel was an extremely affected and heavy-handed Falstaff, Michaels-Moore scores all his interpretative points in subtlety. Even if the flu has robbed his velvety baritone of colour and overtones, one can see it is a round, rich and pleasant voice with a varied tonal palette, keen on fluent legato. Because he never overdid any comic effect, his Falstaff always sounded convincing in his aristocratic self-delusion and particularly funny because of that. To make things better, he possesses natural talent for comedy and had the audience on his side at every moment. Baritone Jean-François Lapointe too was announced indisposed. Although his low register was not really functional, he had no problem with the high end of his range and produced some firm top notes. Paolo Fanale’s tenor is rather open and lacking roundness, what made him a not entirely seductive Fenton, but he proved he could effectively soften his tone in his big solo.

This was my first experience with Anna Caterina Antonacci in the theatre – and all I can say is that she more than fulfilled my expectations. Her voice is both richer and smoother live than in recordings and the way how she inhabits the text, colouring each word as if she herself was speaking her own lines made her a particularly spirited Alice. This is a role that tends to take second place in most performances of this opera – not this evening. She was ideally matched by the fruity-toned Meg of Caitlin Hulcup and the not entirely Italianate, but ideally delicate Nannetta of Chen Reiss, who floated haunting pianissimi as if it were the most natural thing in the world. If Marie-Nicole Lemieux lacks the solid middle register of an Italian mezzo, she does have impressive low notes and a really engaging stage presence. Minor roles were cast from strength in the veteran butstill  fresh-toned Raúl Gimenéz (Dr. Cajus), Patrizio Saudella (Bardolfo) and Federico Sacchi (Pistola).

Mario Martone’s Victorian staging could not be less imaginative – although Ursula Patzak’s costumes were quite beautiful (if conventional), Sergio Tramonti’s sets were particularly unconvincing in the use of a fire-escape-like staircase as a fixed element around which props were added for every scene.  The closing scene especially gave an impression of carelessness and limited budget. That said, the direction of actors itself was refreshingly up-to-the-point and spontaneously yet precisely rendered by this gifted group of singers.

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