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Posts Tagged ‘Verdi’s Falstaff’

On explaining his new production of Verdi’s Falstaff for the Deutsche Oper, director Christof Loy says he was influenced by Brecht-ian heritage in Berlin, by the fact that this year is Verdi’s jubilee and by the role aging plays in one’s relationship with society (as related to the fact that Verdi composed Falstaff as an old man, that he founded the Casa Verdi for retired musicians and by Daniel Schmid’s documentary “Il Baccio di Tosca”). Hmm. He also says that he had to find the courage to stage comedy these days. In other words, comedy is not really his thing. One could say that it is not really Germany’s thing. In Italy, I would rather believe that a director would need some guts to stage… a tragedy with philosophical and intellectual undertones – the audience would take rather naturally to comedy. And I don’t mean that Italian comedies are superficial; on the contrary, the most famous examples of Italian cinema show that Italians have an instinct for finding the hidden tear behind the laughs… or the laugh behind the tears. The keyword here is “naturalness”.

If someone has to explain something to you, then the concept is not very clear. As much as I have found the bogus documentary shown before the opera probably the funniest thing this evening, was it really necessary? Well, it was – otherwise, you would not understand that the action takes place in the Casa Verdi… do you see my point? And do you really need to know that? Well, if the point had been naturally conveyed through the staging rather than upon the staging, no… In other words, there were two events in place this evening: Verdi’s Falstaff and the director’s thoughts inspired by Verdi’s biography. In act I, these events often collided in an uncomfortable way. Characters are all showed as pensioners in Casa Verdi and they all (except Nannetta and Fenton) look elderly. As the plot begins to unfold, the action brings them back to their youth. It is not clear if everybody knows that this is a play in the play and their rejuvenescence is only a symbol of the way they feel or if the play is really the play. I can live with that. However, from act II one, Casa Verdi pretty much disappears and everybody is in tenue de soirée, there are waiters, champagne aplenty and it looks a lot like Robert Carsen’s let’s-make-it-chic staging for La Scala, only more intelligently and efficiently directed. In the closing scene, it seems that someone thought “Oops… what about the Casa Verdi?!” and everybody puts on their elderly-people costumes again. I mean: I would have enjoyed either a Herheim-like “Casa Verdi” staging or a Claudette Colbert/Don Ameche glamorous production, but it seems that a decision has not been made. In any case, I like Christof Loy and (especially from act II on), I’ve had fun with the beautiful sets and costumes, the excellent Personenregie and some intelligent/elegant ideas. Everyone else seems to have found no problem in the incoherent concept – it’s been a while since I’ve last seen a boo-less opening night at the Deutsche Oper.

Actually, my problem lies rather in the musical side of the performance. The program book says, at some point, that “the orchestra leads the stage direction”. Exactly. In Falstaff, the orchestra does not only tell the story, it embodies the story. Every little dot in the score IS the story. If a note goes astray or unnoticed, you’ve missed part of the story. This requires a very specific orchestral sound – clear, transparent but very much present, as you would find at La Scala – a Swiss-clockmaker precision in balancing stage and pit and  urgent conducting that will keep ebullience up to the last bar. The Deutsche Oper Orchestra is very German in sound, but some conductors have made wonders in giving it an Italian soul. Unfortunately, the house’s GMD has never been one of them. This evening, for instance, the thick and indistinct orchestral sound did not seem to convey any theatrical point rather than accompanying the singers (or drowning them at many occasions). And that is a no-go in this score. Pity, for there was a good cast (both in musical and dramatic terms).

Barbara Haveman, a singer I had never heard before, was an almost ideal Alice – clear-toned, nimble, spirited and charming. The always efficient Jana Kurucová was an exceptionally pleasant and attractive Meg. The fact that I mention her just right after the prima donna shows how good she was. Elena Tsallagova was a healthy, creamy-toned Nanetta who produced ideally ethereal pianissimi in her aria. Dana Beth Miller relished the upfront chest-voice routine as Ms. Quickly with aplomb and it must be mentioned that the gear change to the middle register was expertly managed too. Joel Prieto (Fenton) took some time to warm but once he got there sang with abandon and good taste. I am not sure if Ford is a very good role for Michael Nagy – he seemed a bit overparted and sounded often monochromatic, but that one color was pleasant enough. Replacing Markus Brück (although the Deutsche Oper explains that he was sick, this must be a very long disease, for the replacement appears both in the opening film and in every rehearsal photo), Noel Bouley proved to have the necessary charisma and dramatic engagement. He competently embraced the director’s idea of showing that Falstaff never let the child in himself go and that this makes him special. He has a forceful but not truly large voice, good low and high notes, but he does not yet vocally inhabit the text as a singer with long experience in the role would do. I have recently seen Ambrogio Maestri sing it and, well, I’m afraid I was spoiled by the experience… Last but not least, Thomas Blondelle, Gideon Poppe and Marko Mimica really made something of the roles of Doctor Caius, Bardolfo and Pistola.

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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.

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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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Although one can always acquire a taste, sometimes you really have to work hard for it. So here goes my confession: I don’t like Falstaff. I know all the reasons why I should, but the ear can be deaf to reasoning in matters like that. With that in mind, considering the good opinion friends of good taste have on this season’s Met Falstaff, I have bought a ticket on the level of price I reserve to the operas _I_ like. Well, it seems I am condemned not to like it – at least in this life – since James Levine’s conducting was indeed admirable. Richard Strauss, whose opinion is way way more significant than mine, was a great admirer of the work and wrote a letter to Verdi expressing his admiration. In this sense, Levine could find the connection between both composers on producing rich orchestral sound perfectly descriptive in its instrumental effects. Sometimes the richness of sound would pose problems to singers. But that’s also a Straussian feature, one could argue. In that sense, maybe a more exuberant-voiced cast would have been helpful. As it is, only Stephanie Blythe, a spirited Ms. Quickly, could sail above the deluxe strings without any effort in her strong focused and penetrating mezzo. A major performance. Matthew Polenzani’s dulcet but positive Fenton was also most welcome. Maria Zifchak’s firm and pleasant mezzo is worthy of mention too – and that is a compliment for any Meg. On the other hand, the charming and musicianly Patricia Racette had very little leeway to start with. The result was a permanent colorless tone. The same could be said of Heidi Grant Murphy’s Nanetta, who was able to succeed nonetheless in producing the necessarily ethereal pianissimi. As for Roberto Frontali, his Italianate tone and energy helped him through having to sing Ford in a big theatre.

Regarding Bryn Terfel, it is hard to say something definitive about his performance. First of all, it seemed it was not a good night for him. He had some trouble with one or two top notes until he got entirely grey-voiced in the forest scene. However, before that, his handsome bass-baritone was pleasant all the way, even in the poor patches. Although Terfel has developed into something far less artificial than his studio recording with Abbado, it is still something “from outside to inside”, built rather from an intellectual approach for something that should be completely spontaneous. When one think of the great Italian exponent of the parts, natural flamboyance is a key element of all that. In this sense, Terfel’s studied extroverts placed him far from pole position in this competition. Of course, the part of Falstaff might be approached from other points-of-view. The excellent Gabriel Bacquier, in Götz Friedrich’s film, for example, builds his Falstaff from a Baron Ochs-like decadent patrician perspective incredibly funny in its seriousness, something which would become Terfel’s nobility of tone and somewhat narcissistic temper.

Finally, I don’t know if I was really keen on the revival of Zeffirelli 1960’s production. It certainly looked liked its age, not because it was in bad shape (it has been entirely refurbished), but because it looks like those pale photographs of productions we see in books. Something like “Gabriela Tucci’s Alice is wooed by Giuseppe Taddei’s Falstaff in this 1957 production in Florence”. Maybe I had just expected something more glamorous.

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