In the opening, Falstaff’s below stage quarters at the Garter Inn, barrels are stacked high as if supporting the stage: centred a sewer -like upturned vat, and left stage Falstaff’s mountainous bed. Wild -haired and bearded, unkempt, overblown, Falstaff -‘a whale washed onto the beaches of London’- is played magnificently , with swagger, by Ambrogio Maestri. After rebuking his retainers Bardolfo and Pistolo for getting caught pickpocketing (Dr.Caius), Falstaff defines Onore. A fine word indeed, but can a dead man feel honour? He’ll have nothing of it. Falstaff has written two identical love letters to two of the most wealthy and desirable wives of Windsor, reqesting of each a tryst with him. ‘Alice Ford is mine’, boasts Falstaff, holding up arms in triumph like a football fan. But the ladies, amused and outraged, plot to make a fool of Falstaff , using Mrs. Quickly as a go- between.
Alain Altinoglu, Vienna Opera’s French Armenian conductor, considers Falstaff a difficult work to put on; and the ensemble work the most challenging (Prologue 09). Sometimes every singer is on stage, singing together. Some are shouting, others confessing their love; but it’s an orderly confusion.
Vienna State Opera’s bright, well -lit stage (designer Marco Marelli) illuminates the complex intrigues, separating different groups on a tilting stage, (split in Act 3).Marelli as director has sought a stage with minimal decor, a floor that can be tipped, to afford an upper and lower area. Marelli’s near empty stage -modelled on Shakespeare’s-is in keeping with the ‘realism’ of Verdi’s anti-illusionist score. So the bare stage symbolises the bourgeois, in contrast to the cluttered rich colours, reds and gold, of Falstaff’s world. Falstaff’s ‘underground’ is independent of the power machinations played out above it.
‘Four people are talking at once and one listens’. The merry wives of Windsor’s time has arrived.’My face will shine upon him like a star above the earth’, so radiantly beautiful Alice Ford (Ildiko Raimondi) mimics Falstaff’s words. On Marelli’s sloping stage, ‘a band of muttering men are separated from the chattering women’. Ford is arranging to marry his daughter Nanetta (Sylvia Schwartz) to Dr.Caius; but she’s in love with Fenton. Upstage, the young innocent lovers are a foil to their elders’ cynical intrigues: ‘while the old folk play their games we secretly play ours’. Hence Ford visits Falstaff to entrap him, disguised as Fontana , a rejected suitor. ‘Gold opens all doors’, agrees Falstaff, pining, love gives us no respite in life. Ford, distrusting his wife, fears himself being cuckolded.
Act II is a triumph of ensemble and precarious timing. The ‘pompous’Falstaff is dressed in a ridiculous outfit of yellow and orange striped silk, with headpiece, resembling a giant bee. ‘I know nothing of flattering words’, Falstaff protests, as he woos Alice, in cool turquoise gown- holding off Falstaff , with Meg Page and Quickly hidden behind a screen. The laundry basket scene, in which Falstaff is bundled off, is adroitly handled. Centre stage Ford’s daughter and Fenton are making love behind the screen, now a closet; and Fastaff , asked if he would like some air, quibbles, all he requires is a ‘tiny hole’.
The third Act , Falstaff’s come-uppance, begins with a melancholy world-weariness; larger than life Falstaff senses his mortality. In his underwear, all washed out, Falstaff bewails ‘a bad pitiful world full of trickery’. Locked up in a woman’s stinking laundry basket, and they threw water all over him! He admits he’s getting too fat and growing grey.
But now he’ll add some wine to Thames water. ‘Good wine and sun, that’s the life!’ Wine dispels melancholy. Falstaff the bon viveur, endears himself irresistibly to audiences. And Falstaff again allows himself to be persuaded by Quickly into a trap. She cuddles and schmoozes him ; but Falstaff leads her away to suggest further intimacies.
His rendezvous in the guise of ‘Black Huntsman’, Falstaff’s famed antlers mark him as cuckold. He is assailed by his adversaries, to the chimes of midnight, dressed in white resembling a religious order, (they’d sell his body to the devil). Falstaff realises what an ass he’s been. But in the brilliant comic denouement , Ford’s plan also backfires, and in the confusion , his daughter marries the outsider, Fenton (Ho-yoon Chung).
Verdi’s last opera -his only comedy- ends with comic reconciliation: one of his most famous ensembles; a polyphony of good cheer and humanist proverbs. And in the rousing finale, ‘Everything in the world is a jest…but beware, he who laughs last, lasts longest’.Tutto Nel Mondo e Burla is inscribed overhead on a banner, and the cast retreat to a banquet, bedecked in party hats and streamers.
For Alain Altinoglu, once understudy at Paris Opera, this Falstaff was a triumph. The complex ensembles, marvelously executed, and the cast very fine: including Marie -Nicole Lemieux as Mrs Quickly, Marco Caria as Ford, Herwig Percorara’s Bardolfo. Exceptional was Ambrogio Maestri’s Falstaff ; marvelously sung, he enacted and occupied the role. A Viennese lady , who had seen all eight productions of Marelli’s 2003 set, rated Maestri as the best Falstaff, against even Terfel.