Review: Wiener Staatsoper Falstaff

Not a current poster but...
In case you wanted tickets...

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see the Wiener Staatsoper's excellent production of Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff. Falstaff is remarkable chronologically because it was Verdi's 26th or 28th and final opera, his third collaboration with librettist Arrigo Boito, his third opera based on a Shakespeare text, his second comedy, and his only successful one. Despite this, it is acclaimed as one of Verdi's masterpieces and a standard comedy in the opera repertoire. The Staatsoper's production demonstrated the uncanny ability to remain true to a conservative production while still innovating in exciting ways. First, a link to general information and synopsis as well as the cast.

Synopsis & general information:


|Giuseppe Verdi

  • Alain Altinoglu | Dirigent
  • Marco Arturo Marelli | Regie und Licht
  • Marco Arturo Marelli | Bühne
  • Dagmar Niefind | Kostüme
  • Ambrogio Maestri | Falstaff
  • Marco Caria | Ford
  • Ho-yoon Chung | Fenton
  • Ildikó Raimondi | Alice Ford
  • Sylvia Schwartz | Nannetta
  • Marie-Nicole Lemieux | Mrs. Quickly
  • Michael Roider | Dr. Cajus
  • Herwig Pecoraro | Bardolfo
  • Janusz Monarcha | Pistola
  • Nadia Krasteva | Meg Page
One of the most intriguing and innovative aspects of this particular production was the set design. I had the opportunity to see the model, photos, and design drawings for the Falstaff set when I was at the Staatsoper's Tag der Offenen Tür. I was somewhat skeptical about the set from this perspective. Since seeing the actual show my opinion was completely reversed.
A photo of the model from the Tag der Offenen Tür depicting the wooden wine cellar of the Garter Inn
The wooden paneled roof/floor that can be seen at the top of the photo above began tilted slightly down toward the audience, acting as a floor. This created suspense - an almost blank stage but with the planks indicating something about to occur. In fact, like a jack-in-the-box, the wine cellar depicted above rose from below, having been completely hidden beneath the stage. The combination of this sudden appearance and the jolly glowing light in the wine cellar set up a great place for Falstaff to merrily plot his seduction of both Alice and Meg and to set about his plans. For the second scene in the act it was easy enough for the set to return to its opening position, tilted toward the audience, as the women receive Falstaff's invitations.

The stage in the tilted down position,
here, for the second action.
The stage in the second act opens in the wine cellar, but when the ruse is played on Falstaff, the stage remains roughly as in the beginning, with the platform tilted down toward the audience. I thought this was an apt choice because this simple postion, combined with the simple chairs and screen on stage, allowed the focus to remain on the rather complicated interplay between Falstaff, Alice, her female compatriots, and the men, as each group pursues its ends through complicated overlapping music. I stage managed an almost identical version of this scene. Without simplicity, the audience simply cannot follow the back and fourth movements and music.

Finally, the third act took the two positions of the set from the previous two acts and modified them. The beginning of the act starts with the clamshell of the planks open once again, but this time only halfway, with two walls beneath it depicting the exterior of a house. It is here that Mistress Quickly meets with Falstaff to regale him with the legend of the Black Huntsman and set in motion the second plan to humble him once and for all. The second scene began with the stage tilted more dramatically toward the audience for Fenton's aria. The steepness gave a sense of gravity to Fenton's feelings. This sense of gravity continued as Falstaff arrives in the dress of the Black Huntsman. The final coup of the set and staging was the curtains closing with only Falstaff left in front as the round deeming all humans a fool begins and the curtains open again to show the whole cast merrily seated around a table with party letters.

Maybe not the best scene...
 Some final notes about the actual staging: On the whole it was quite brilliant. The scenes in the wine cellar were very effective and got the business done. The more complex scenes on the top of the planks also worked with people coming on and off stage and moving all around the square of the planks organically. Particularly brilliant was the interplay between Fenton and Nannetta with her at the upraised, upstage peak of the platform and him on the downturned, downstage corner as they turned and repeated their vows of love throughout the show. Some aspects, like the use of flashlights and white lights in haunting Falstaff and some people seen running under the platform were slight errors. I also wished the ladder could have been somehow taken up after Falstaff's entrance from the pit in the third act. All in all however, it was a very solid staging on an incredible set. The costumes were decidedly not 13th-14th century, but in general a sort of late-Victorian to early-20th Century. Some notable exceptions (like Fenton's flashy suit) made for interest and yet were not so far out that they were distracting. Again, the dramatic white robes and pointy hats during Falstaff's haunting and the lack of physical poking were a bit off, but all in all, excellent costuming that complimented the staging.
Ambrogio Maestri at the curtain call

At this point, someone might wonder whether I have been discussing a stage play, due to the absence of discussion of the music and the singing. I can assure you that the singing for this production of Falstaff was good. In fact, it was superb. It seems to me, however, that while demanding as all Verdi is, the ability of a cast to collectively sing Falstaff lays in convincing ease of production. Many operatic comedies and dramas alike have show stopping arias, passages, and so forth that can show off singers and suggest "once in a lifetime" performances. Even without such passages, a drama's tension can still result in such laudable performances. Falstaff is, of course, not a drama, and lacks a series of show stopping moments. It's therefore hard to laud the singing as incomparable. That said, Ambrogio Maestri demonstrated a commanding, quite sizable baritone that carried no matter how big the orchestra was beneath it. This basic size allowed him to float up to comedic falsettos, high notes, mockeries of female voices, and so forth, as well as painting color into the tone. Herwig Pecoraro and Janusz Monarcha made great buffoons as Falstaff's wayward minions, with voices that were clear and carried, yet had a comedic cast. Michael Roider's character tenor suited Dr. Caius well, though it was hard to tell what his exact interpretation of the character was. Sylvia Schwartz pulled off a perfect balance between young, quiet ingenue and willful, joyous protagonist, with a sweet voice that at times opened up into a more cavernous sound. Ho-yoon Chung's tenor was more than sufficient for Fenton. He produced an intriguing fusion between the lighter tenor voice that sometimes plays the role and a heavier one suited to Verdi's more dramatic works. Marco Caria had a commanding presence as Ford, a role whose dramatic lines make him the butt of mockery. Caria played this fieriness appropriately with a large, ringing vibrato, making himself seem over the top in the context of the rest of the opera. Nadia Krasteva's Meg Page was well sung as well, but was overshadowed by the superb work of Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Idikó Raimondi. The former had a deep, rich color to the voice and excellent acting, walking the fine line between a servant who is more independent than normal and a woman still below the class of her compatriots. The latter's brilliant soprano rang strong, pure, and mockingly out as she led her friends in their plots against Falstaff.

In all, the singing was very impressive and very important, but it was the set, directing, and acting that really brought Verdi's masterpiece comedy to life and had us laughing right until the end of the final round.


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