Cast: Rebecca Evans (Alice Ford), Ruth Iniesta (Nannetta), Maite Beaumont (Meg Page), Daniela Barcellona (Mistress Quickly), Joel Prieto (Fenton), Christophe Mortagne (Dr. Caius), Mikeldi Atxalandabaso (Bardolfo), Roberto de Candia (Sir John Falstaff), Simone Piazzola (Ford), Valeriano Lanchas (Pistola), Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Real, c. Daniele Rustioni, p. Laurent Pelly, d. Barbara de Limburg and Laurent Pelly, video director Stéphane Lebard.
BelAir Classiques DVD BAC177, Blu-ray BAC477 [128']
I suppose many of us have a mental checklist of what constitutes the ideal Falstaff, and Laurent Pelly’s production for Teatro Real certainly ticks most of my boxes. His direction of Boito and Verdi’s quicksilver creation is perfectly micromanaged, making sure the staging is not only fast, furious and funny, but also clearly comprehensible for newcomers. His detailed grasp of character in action makes sure that we’re presented with ten, well-observed individuals: every note and syllable counts, as they must. Barbara de Limburg’s 1970s Windsor settings are aptly amusing, especially the grotty hole-in-the-wall Garter Inn with scarcely room to swing the dead cat possibly lurking under the floorboards; while Pelly’s costuming – the Windsor Wives’ twin sets, the hairy-biker Pistol and grey-suited Ford – creates the sense of a genuine community, pushed lightly over the edge in the Windsor Forest finale, where all appear spattered in whitewash, to magical effect.
The performers come up trumps too, particularly the women. Rebecca Evans is a gracious Alice Ford, firm of tone and technically pristine, completely in control of everything and everyone around her, without sacrificing one iota of fun. Maite Beaumont’s Meg Page is her copper-voiced, lively foil, the wives working seamlessly with their downmarket, shot-swigging neighbour Quickly – Daniela Barcellona in specially commanding form, her imperious mezzo now possessing true contralto depth. Last not least comes Ruth Iniesta, one of Madrid’s best-kept vocal secrets in zarzuela as well as opera. Her Nannetta is a hyper-active, suburban kitten, purring with pleasure at Fenton’s attentions and unable to keep her hands off him, yet able to deliver a radiant ‘Fairy Queen’ aria in the last scene.
There’s a lot to like about their male adversaries too, led by Roberto de Candia’s hirsute ageing rock-star of a Falstaff, very entertaining as ‘the cause of wit in other men’ if missing out on some subtleties of his own: Verdi follows Shakespeare in taking note of the heavy man’s physical light-footedness, but here ‘Quand’ero paggio’ provides little perspective on the monstrous ‘tun of man’ we see before us. The Honour monologue could also do with more delicate timing, but this remains an engaging portrayal, warts and all. If Joel Prieto’s personable Fenton doesn’t quite carry its charm across to the singing side, the reverse is true of Simone Piazzola’s admirably-sung but dull dog of a Ford – the director does wonders in providing him with enough activity (not to mention a chorus of mocking lookalikes for the ‘Jealousy’ aria) to help bring the character to life.
If speed and supercharged power are Daniele Rustioni’s forte in the pit, there is surely space for more sun and shade than he and the Teatro Real Orchestra – or perhaps BelAir Classiques’ sound engineers – provide. The video direction is likewise just a notch rough and ready, failing to track some of the swifter on-stage manoeuvrings of the forest scene. But carping criticism falls away in the bright light of the whole. At the end, where Pelly swings a mirror round to pull the entire Teatro Real audience into the frame, the point that ‘All the world’s a jest’ could hardly be more genially made. Such consummate stagecraft makes this a Falstaff for all seasons.
© Christopher Webber and Opera magazine, 2020
[Grateful thanks to the Editor of Opera, for permission to publish this review on zarzuela.net]