After Slow Start Falstaff Redeems Royal Opera House

Franco Milazzo
By Franco Milazzo Last edited 32 months ago
After Slow Start Falstaff Redeems Royal Opera House ★★★☆☆ 3

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

The boos for last Monday’s controversial Guillaume Tell turned into cheers last night for the Royal Opera House’s new take on Giuseppe Verdi’s final work Falstaff.

Based on Shakespeare’s biggest character — by line count if not girth — the comedy is largely based on the bard’s Merry Wives Of Windsor with occasional nods to Henry IV Parts I and II. The impoverished eponymous knight has a genius idea to get himself out of the red: propose to two wealthy married ladies at the same time and hope one says yes. Both women discover his plot as well as one of the ladies’ husbands and general hilarity ensures.

Or rather, it doesn’t. A painfully slow start isn’t helped by the curtain going up and down more times than a fiddler’s elbow to accommodate the three scene changes required in the first half. Normally when faced with the wall of velvet, the average audience member’s instinct is to track down some overpriced ice-cream or head to the cloakroom. Being told to sit there and wait for something — anything — to happen is the operatic equivalent of waterboarding.

With much of the early momentum dulled or dissipated, it takes some time for Falstaff to find its feet. When it does just before the interval, it is for a madcap scene which has everything including the kitchen sink: arriving at one of the wives’ houses for what he believes is a date, Falstaff finds himself hiding from an irate husband first in a cupboard then a laundry cart before being thrown through an open window into a river.

But, soft! What glimmer of redemption through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and the second half is the sun. The third act opens with Falstaff waking up in a stable with only a horse called Rupert for company; from here on in, both Falstaff the character and the opera and are rejuvenated.

Admittedly, the character is heading for his biggest fall yet but, for the rest of us, what follows is unmitigated joy. Leaving behind the simplistic farce seen earlier, the twists and turns now flow fast, furious and uninterrupted. The aesthetics are turned up to eleven with both Paul Steinberg’s set design and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes becoming a feast for the eyes. Conductor Michael Schønwandt and his orchestra reach their zenith and, by the end, the tawdry first half has been completely forgotten, if not forgiven.

As Falstaff, baritone Ambrogio Maestri is magnificently full-voiced throughout as he plays the much-mocked knight convincingly straight. Called the Italian answer to Bryn Terfel, his outsized frame perfectly fits this role. Directed superbly by Robert Carsen, the cast work well together to make the most of what is not Verdi’s strongest work musically but one which, eventually, shines visually as bright as anything in his oeuvre.

Falstaff continues on 9, 12, 15 and 18 July with tickets priced £33-£163. More information can be found on the Royal Opera House website. Londonist attended on a complimentary press ticket.

Last Updated 07 July 2015