Sunday 7 January 2018

Verdi’s Falstaff is as popular (and convincing) as ever

Verdi: Falstaff - Opera Vlaanderen
Verdi: Falstaff - Opera Vlaanderen
Verdi Falstaff: Julien Behz, Craig Colclough, Michael Colvin, Denzil Delaere, Anat Edri, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Kai Rüütel, Markus Suihkonen, Iris Vermillion, Jacqueline Wagner, dir: Christoph Waltz, cond, Tomáš Netopil, Opera Vlaanderen Antwerpen
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Dec 29 2017 Star rating: 4.0
This production of Verdi’s last opera was splendidly sung and interestingly directed

Based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor by Arrigo Boito and scenes from Henry IV (parts I & II), Falstaff - which received its première in February 1893 at La Scala, Milan - was the last of Verdi’s 28 operas and written as he was approaching the ripe old age of 80. It was also his second comedy and, indeed, his third work based on a Shakespeare play following that of Macbeth and Othello.

Christoph Waltz directed the work for Opera Vlaanderen in Antwerp (seen 29 December 2017), conducted by Tomáš Netopil with Craig Colclough in the title role.

Verdi: Falstaff - Craig Colclough - Opera Vlaanderen
Verdi: Falstaff - Craig Colclough - Opera Vlaanderen
A somewhat insignificant plot, it revolves round the thwarted and sometimes farcical efforts of the well-loved fat old knight of Windsor, Sir John Falstaff, to seduce two married women to gain access to their husbands’ wealth.

The work is now part of the operatic repertoire worldwide but it was not always the case. Although the prospect of a new opera from Verdi caused great interest in Italy and from around the world, Falstaff did not prove to be as popular as earlier works in the composer’s canon.
Verdi: Falstaff - Jacqueline Wagner, Kai Rüütel, Iris Vermillion, Anat Edri - Opera Vlaanderen
Jacqueline Wagner, Kai Rüütel, Iris Vermillion,
Anat Edri - Opera Vlaanderen
Therefore, after the initial performances in Italy it fell into neglect until championed by Arturo Toscanini who insisted on its revival at La Scala and the New York Met in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many felt that the opera suffered from a lack of full-blooded melodies so much loved in Verdi's previous operas, a view strongly contradicted by Toscanini. But conductors of the generation after him championed the work including the likes of that famed trio - Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti.

The first performances outside the Kingdom of Italy were in Trieste and Vienna in May 1893 while the London première took place at Covent Garden a year later. Sir Thomas Beecham saw fit to revive it in 1919 but recalled in his memoirs that the public stayed away.

‘I’ve often been asked why I think Falstaff is not more of a box-office attraction,’ he said. ‘However, I don’t think the answer is far to seek. Let it be admitted that there are fragments of melody as exquisite and haunting as anything that Verdi has written elsewhere such as the duet of Nanetta and Fenton in the first act and the song of Fenton at the beginning of the final scene which have something of the lingering beauty of an indian summer. But in comparison with every other work of the composer, it is wanting in tunes of a broad and impressive character and one or two of the type of ‘O Mia Regina’ (Don Carlos), ‘Ritorna Vincitor’ (Aida) or ‘Ora per sempre addio’ (Otello) might have helped the situation.

Toscanini also recognised that this was the view of many but he believed the work to be Verdi's greatest opera. He passionately said: ‘I believe it will take years and years before the general public will understand this masterpiece but when they do they’ll run to hear it like they do for Rigoletto and La traviata.

Audiences in Antwerp certainly bear this statement out judging by the full (and enthusiastic) houses the run has received. In fact, I was lucky to catch the final performance in Antwerp before the company moves to its second house in the lovely and inviting Flemish town of Ghent in January for a further half-dozen performances starting on Wednesday 10th. I should dearly love to be there.

Verdi: Falstaff - Johannes Martin Kränzle, Craig Colclough - Opera Vlanderen
Johannes Martin Kränzle, Craig Colclough - Opera Vlanderen
However, the total focus on this production, directed by Christoph Waltz, relied heavily on the cast who were a strong, forceful and remarkable bunch of singers who consistently hit the mark working mainly on a bare stage apart from a few odd props here and there and a couple of false white-painted proscenium arches and a back curtain. What was behind it? I wondered!

Nonetheless, the production worked remarkably well in such a spartan and unusual setting and, no doubt, helped with budgetary requirements. But it was left to one’s imagination to realise such famous settings as The Garter Inn and Windsor Great Park. But as Wagner said ‘imagination creates reality’. It certainly does.

Interestingly, Christoph Waltz - who was raised in Vienna to a musical household - is known more for his work in the cinema. He successfully portrayed SS officer, Hans Lander, in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards (in which he won the first of two Oscars) as well as Dr King Schultz in Django Unchained. He actually made his Opera Vlaanderen début with Der Rosenkavalier in 2013.

Engaging Mr Waltz is quite a bold move for Opera Vlaanderen and forms part of a wider initiative by the company to connect with actors, directors and so forth working outside of the opera genre.

And English National Opera encompasses the same mood of thinking, really. They have nurtured new talent from outside of the opera genre. Last year, for instance, they commissioned Olivier Award-winning actor, Rory Kinnear - who played Hamlet and Iago at the National - to direct Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

Verdi: Falstaff - Denzil Delaere, Markus Suihkonen, Craig Colclough - Opera Vlanderen
Denzil Delaere, Markus Suihkonen, Craig Colclough - Opera Vlanderen
The focus on Falstaff centres round the ageing and conniving old knight Falstaff looking back at life when he was the slim page of the Duke of Norfolk. Based on one of Shakespeare’s most irresistible creations, Falstaff’s a glutton like no other but gets his come-uppance for trying to seduce not one but two married women.

Craig Colclough in the pivotal role of Falstaff pulled out all stops and delivered a strong and thoroughly convincing performance that, I found, so pleasurable to watch. He sticks to his guns as always and, indeed, is always one step ahead of his motley deuce of vagabonds and Garter Inn cronies: Bardolph (Denzil Delaere) and Pistol (Markus Suihkonen). They put in commanding performances that fitted the personalities of their flawed characters like a glove.

Alice Ford and Meg Page - the target of Falstaff’s attention - forged an erstwhile and conniving partnership comprising the American soprano Jacqueline Wagner and the Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel while Mistress Quickly was superbly sung and acted by the German mezzo-soprano (a former member of Deutsche Oper Berlin), Iris Vermillion, whose portrayal of the role was business-like and sound. Smartly attired in an eye-catching two-piece suit she was so different in her presentation unlike the flappable (but lovable) old character so often seen in this Shakespearian play.

There were so many marvellous and enjoyable scenes in this production but none more so than the scene played out in Alice Ford’s garden when she and her daughter, Nanetta, head-over-heels in love with Master Fenton (portrayed exceedingly well by Anat Edri and Julien Behz) were seen exchanging stories with Meg Page and Mistress Quickly all tied up with the business about those identical love letters.

And when the four women connive and plot the downfall of poor old Falstaff to teach him a lesson it proved a highlight of this production. A secret rendezvous is hurriedly arranged for Alice and Falstaff while Bardolph and Pistol awkwardly introduces Mr Ford (played suavely by Johannes Martin Kränzle) to Falstaff under a different name.

When the curtain went up on act three witnessing Falstaff sulking in his own misfortune one was totally rewarded by a marvellous (and unusual) setting in which Mr Waltz sprang a big surprise on an unsuspecting audience.

The setting (and depths) of Windsor Great Park - in which Falstaff is ridiculed in the darkness of the night as the antlered Black Hunter - was transported to the orchestra pit while orchestra members were transported to the stage positioned on a variety of vertically-built platforms with members of the chorus at the highest level. I hope no one suffered from vertigo. The secret behind the curtain, I guess!

Verdi: Falstaff - Opera Vlanderen
Verdi: Falstaff - Opera Vlanderen
And under the Czech-born conductor, Tomáš Netopil (firmly on the stage) the orchestra played magnificently capturing the essence and vitality of Verdi’s bright score in an exciting and positive way. It was Verdi at his best!

In the end, everyone lives happily ever after with Dr Caius (Michael Colvin) acting as marriage broker while Falstaff proclaims the world is nothing more than a jest and everyone shares a good hearty laugh. I’ll go along with that every inch of the way. Toscanini would, too, I guess!
Reviewed by Tony Cooper

Verdi: Falstaff
Opera Vlanderen
Conductor: Tomáš Netopil
Director: Christoph Waltz
Set: Dave Warren
Costumes: Judith Holste
Lighting: Felice Ross
Chorusmaster: Jan Schweiger

Sir John Falstaff: Craig Colclough
Ford: Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fenton: Julien Behr
Dr. Cajus: Michael Colvin
Bardolfo: Denzil Delaere
Pistola: Markus Suihkonen
Mrs. Alice Ford: Jacquelyn Wagner
Nannetta: Anat Edri
Mrs. Quickly: Iris Vermillion
Mrs. Meg Page: Kai Rüütel
Symfonisch Orkest Opera Vlaanderen
Koor Opera Vlaanderen
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