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Sunday 20 May 2012

Falstaff at the ROH

Falstaff is one of my favourite Verdi scores, in all his huge operatic oeuvre the one with the lightest touch, the most delicate ideas and possibly the most touching moments. Oddly I see a parallel to the ageing Strauss, whose last opera Capriccio is similarly subdued and subtle, and possibly each work is the most felicitous, if not the most vital opera of each of their careers.

Although I consider myself to be a fan of Carsen, I found this staging a little disappointing. Carsen updates things to the 1950s (an opera updated to the 50s?!! How completely novel and unexpected!) which means English country clubs after the war with oak panelling and dark furniture, the rise of the middle classes (again, for the nth time in history, an obvious parallel with the original), and the women all tottering around like they've come from the set of Westside Story. The kitchen of Act 2 also looks quite American - is Carsen suggesting that these sparky young women are bringing American values to fusty old England? Unfortunately certain plot elements didn't sit well with this updating, but mostly the tone was just too jokey and sitcom like to let the touching intimacy of this ensemble piece to come through. Although the opening scene was pleasingly detailed, Nanetta and Fenton's romance was mishandled, and I felt the Merry Wives lacked the warmth that they needed for them to be truly likeable. The complicated plot was just about made clear, but as everyone remained bustling and moving around during the busy scenes, it was often difficult to know where to look, and it often wasn't immediately obvious who was singing. Overall it's a reasonably entertaining evening, well worth seeing (mostly for the singing see below) but I thought it lacked Carsen's usual sensitivity, sense of beauty, and focus on the human aspects of the drama.

Musically this was a superb evening. Ambrogio Maestri made a vocally very impressive Falstaff, a brilliant, rounded sound, loud without bellowing, with moments of shade, beautifully done. A bit of crooning was on show, especially sliding up to notes, but this was excellent singing. I never felt that he fully inhabited the role though, as say Bryn Terfel, Covent Garden's previous Falstaff, had.

The women were just as impressive. Ana Maria Martinez has a lovely voice, dark, even, rich across the range, with a good sense of line which can really soar when required. There's something slightly grainy in the timbre which means it's not the most beautiful voice, but I don't like it any less for that. She played Alice Ford with a nice mix of fun and poise and I'd like to hear more from her at the ROH. Marie-Nicole Lemieux has the most wonderfully rich alto with true chest tones (something I'm always immensely partial to) allied with an excellent technique. I thought she over acted, though the fault is surely just as much that of the direction. Vocally though this was a treat. Kai Ruutel in the smaller role of Meg Page also sang well.

Amanda Forsythe's prettily sung Nannetta exhibited some gorgeous piano singing, and thankfully she had many opportunities to show off this talent. Joel Prieto's Fenton was soft and sweet and made a good pairing. Dalibor Jenis (Ford) can certainly sing, and he does that ultra covered sotto voce that Jonas Kaufmann does, but somehow it never sounds that beautiful, and certainly it doesn't really thrill. Can't really say what the problem was other than that it was a little odd...

Daniele Gatti kept things pacey, but clearly also relished the wonderful subtleties of this great score. The Royal Opera House Orchestra rose to the occasion and delivered some beautiful ensemble playing - they've been on a roll since Figaro.

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