By Michael Roddy
LONDON (Reuters) - A new production of Verdi's "Falstaff" at the Royal Opera features a big man on a big horse, and it could only flop if the Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri could not sing the title role, which is manifestly not the case.
Maestri, who has sung Shakespeare's rotund knight as portrayed in Verdi's last opera to high praise in opera houses around the world, reprises his specialty in a new production by Canadian director Robert Carsen that is a bit like "Falstaff" meets the 1950s sitcoms "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners", but with Italian conductor Daniel Gatti in the pit and a mostly strong supporting cast, delivers the goods.
Updated to the 1950s from the Elizabethan England of the Shakespeare plays it is based on, the production which opened last week and will play on big outdoor screens around Britain on May 30, features an almost blindingly yellow 1950s-period kitchen in one scene extending the entire width of the stage.
The kitchen belongs to Alice Ford, one of the wealthy women the proud but impecunious Falstaff is trying to seduce for love and profit, and it may be the most in-your-face set at Covent Garden since a production of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" a few years ago outfitted the witch's kitchen with gleaming chrome designer ovens and a freezer locker where the children she intended to bake were suspended on racks.
Carsen has transferred a gossipy garden scene to a swanky restaurant and brings a real horse, eating real hay, on stage in the last act because, Carsen told Reuters, Falstaff is meant to be dressed up as a hunter, and so must have a mount, and the horse does its bit to keep up the eating theme that runs from the opening curtain to the finale.
With its cast of scheming and upwardly mobile women, a bit like the character Lucille Ball played in her 1950s sitcom, and with an indelibly memorable fat man, like Jackie Gleason as the overweight bus driver Ralph Kramden in "The Honeymooners", Carsen hardly seems far from the mark when he describes his "Falstaff" as "a situation comedy, and in many ways it's like the first musical, too".
Carsen even has a response for anyone who has seen the last act before, in which the fat knight is tormented by the rest of the cast dressed up as fairies and elves who he thinks will destroy him because he has intruded on their midnight revels around a tree in Windsor Forest called Herne's Oak.
In this production, there's no tree, and the stage instead is covered with tables pushed together to serve for a banquet.
"It is true that the last act is supposed to take place beside something called Herne's Oak but we decided to make the entire production out of Herne's Oak - the entire show is made out of oak paneling from beginning to end. The paneling, the floor, the wall and all the furniture. Herne's Oak is there the entire way through."
All this, Carsen told Reuters, is in the interest of finding "one thing which lets you into the work".
"And I think with the audience it was really a wonderful reception," he added.
The critics delivered a mixed verdict, with some complaining that the production is so busy and madcap that it sometimes gives the music short shrift, while others said Carsen and cast had done a creditable job.
"The audience may have loved the Fords' Good Housekeeping dream kitchen and a real horse that Falstaff rides into Windsor Forest, but these were only amusing gimmicks. Otherwise it was all routine stuff, with a particularly disappointing hash made of the great last scene," Rupert Christiansen wrote in The Daily Telegraph.
"Carsen has a musical grasp of the piece...and he understands that Falstaff is more than a romp," wrote Martin Kettle in The Guardian.
At the centre of it all is Falstaff and no one would deny that Maestri fits the bill. He is so large that he barely needs padding for the role, and in publicity materials he expressed concern not so much about having to share the stage with a live horse as for the damage he might inflict on the poor steed when he mounted it. Fortunately, the horse is a sturdy one and showed no ill effects.
Since its premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1893, "Falstaff" has attracted some of the world's greatest baritones to the lead role, among them the late Italian Giuseppe Taddei and the German Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died last week.
Maestri brings a somewhat laid back approach to the part, but from the opening scene when he is trying to figure out a way to pay for his last banquet which includes "a brace of pheasants and an anchovy", to the finale when he has been made to seem foolish but human, he truly embraces the role.
"Maestri may lack the vocal allure of some of his predecessors," Kettle wrote in the Guardian, "but he is confident and sympathetic, subtle of tone when needed, and certainly looks the part when he goes wooing in his full hunting regalia.".
Maestri is looking forward to singing in Carsen's production in Milan in January when it opens La Scala's 200th birthday tribute season to Verdi in an opera house that is notorious for rough and swift verdicts on productions or singers the audience does not find to its taste.
"I like the production very much because I think it fits for the audiences of today, it probably gets across what Verdi and the librettist wanted to say more than if it were a more traditional production," Maestri said.
"But I think at La Scala the young people will like it much more than the older generation."
("Falstaff" in rotation at Covent Garden through May 30 www.roh.org.uk)
(Editing by Paul Casciato)