Giuseppe Verdi, libretto Arrigo Boito after Shakespeare
Teatro del Maggio Musicale, Florence
The 80-year-old Verdi so wanted Shakespearean authenticity for what was to be his last opera that he sent his designer to England to get things right. For Florence in 2021, director Sven-Eric Bechtolf did something similar, employing Julian Crouch of London and Liverpool-based Kevin Pollard for set and dress design. The result is a stunning, joyful production, with gorgeous costumes that seem to inspire those wearing them as much as they will delight an audience.
Commenting on the death of Peter Brook this week, a columnist in The Times wrote that the great, radical director had warned against "charging at windmills that are no longer dangerous," and asked whether we’d become addicted to the idea that only a visionary director could reveal the inner secrets of a play.
There is no fundamental reinterpretation here, no transposition to modern times. If there is reappraisal, it is in realising the translucence of the score and necessary clarity of diction that are brought out by conductor John Eliot Gardiner, virtues that have much in common with his performances of Monteverdi’s music from nearly 300 years earlier.
Whether in his control of a tricky, rapid multi-ensemble section with four singers pitted against five, in his pacing when singers roam free of instrumentalists, or in bringing out the colours of the magnificent, light orchestration of the Windsor Park scene, this was musical mastery.
There’s mercifully little buffoonery to get in the way. Verdi was fascinated by this credible character who makes a living out of lies (anyone else come to mind?) and Nicola Alaimo embodies the fat knight in all aspects, delivering the famous Honour monologue with panache, but showing his sentimental side in reminiscence of his days as a page. It’s all done in a natural style, without an excess of bombast, and presenting a more sympathetic portrait of the old reprobate as a result.
Ailyn Perez is a sparkling Alice, leading Falstaff a merry dance, seemingly illuminated by her sunshine yellow costume. Her voice lacked a little penetration in some of the quieter passages, but in an opera that generally discourages big, blowsy singing, American Matthew Swensen’s lovely, nutty lyric tenor provides a highlight whenever Fenton is on stage, and Simone Piazzola’s Ford, in a wonderfully fake ginger beard, is impressive when given full reign to express the bitterness of a supposed cockold.
There’s not a weak link elsewhere, with the rich contralto of Sara Mingardo as Mistress Quickly, Caterina Piva whose Meg is not a little put out by Falstaff’s insincerity, and Francesca Boncompagni as a seductive and alluring Nanetta, with a splendid, light, floating top. Antonio Gares, Gianluca Buratto and Christian Collia brought wit and energy in the supporting roles of Bardolph, Pistol and Dr Cajus.
Alex Brok’s lighting helps separate distinct groups that find themselves in imaginary proximity on stage, and contributes to making the final scene at Herne’s Oak eerie and more effective than usual. The one slip-up in this well-drilled production is that the dumping of the fat knight into the river is rather botched, but that is easily forgiven by the time we see the fairies gather in Windsor Park, dressed as acorns and flowers, as adorable as any ever in the court of Oberon. Even the superstitious Falstaff seemed as charmed as he was affrighted.
Reviewer: Colin Davison