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May 16, 2012 6:24 pm
It is a virtuoso performance. Rupert the horse, sticking his neck through the stable door, responds on cue and swallows the sugar proffered by Falstaff. “Mondo ladro”, the most poignant aria in Verdi’s operatic swan song, is duly upstaged: the horse steals the show. He does it again when Sir John rides to Windsor Park for his night-time assignation. Like everything in Robert Carsen’s clever new production for the Royal Opera, the animal show is adroitly stage-managed – and a complete charade. Carsen has gone for a crowd-pleaser, decorating Falstaff in a 1950s veneer that smacks of candy floss. The performance has no layers. The cast are reduced to clothes horses.
In a programme article Carsen’s dramaturge, Ian Burton, argues that social stratification in late Elizabethan England, when Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor, matches the early years of the second Elizabethan Age. Is this really what Verdi’s paean to love, life and laughter amounts to? Cue a spectacle in which the fat knight behaves like a déclassé aristocrat, Ford & Co. dress like post-war nouveaux riches and everyone else (Pistol, Bardolph, Fenton, assorted hangers-on) is working class.
It may not have much to do with Verdi but it generates an eye-boggling exhibition of memorabilia, from deer-stalkers to pillbox hats, wood-panelled smoking rooms to Formica kitchens. Set and costume designers Paul Steinberg and Brigitte Reiffenstuel have had a ball, but the visuals are so over the top that there is no room for the opera. The human caricatures – sorry, characters – are swallowed by their period trappings.
The role of country gent, all plus-fours, riding crop and hunting jacket, does not come lightly to Ambrogio Maestri. He sings honestly and acts diligently, but his amiable, broad-brush Falstaff suffers too many competing distractions. While the rest of the cast form a well-practised ensemble, none cuts much of a profile – apart from Ana María Martínez’s pearl-voiced Alice and Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Mistress Quickly, whose vocal colours and verbal inflections ignite the dialogue. Daniele Gatti, making an overdue return to the Covent Garden pit, finds the wit in Verdi’s quicksilver score, but not enough warmth to give the performance the humanity it desperately needs.
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