After the occasional laughs and the growing sense of a failed proposal that was experienced at the opening of the Aix-en-Provence Festival with The Marriage of Figaro, the audience followed the performance of Falstaff Thursday night with an almost constant smile: there is perhaps no better verification that a comedy works. Australian stage director Barrie Kosky has always shown a special affinity for humorous plots and has often been able to discover streaks of humor where apparently there were none. Of course, they abound in the libretto that Arrigo Boito – his real putative son – wrote for an elderly Verdi, already at the end of the street, who embarked on his last opera, with which he returned to comedy after half century, almost like an old-age pastime, without really thinking about singers or specific theaters, a private entertainment without the constant pressures that he had suffered for a good part of his career, a flight from the conventions that had always threatened to grind his inventiveness: Can it surprise anyone that the opera closes with a fugue? But Falstaff it is also a tribute to his ancestors (Mozart, Rossini), contemporaries (Wagner) and even himself, a comic epilogue to a life full of tragedies.
From the images that have come down to us of Victor Maurel (the baritone from Marseille who played the leading role in the premiere of Verdi’s opera in 1893) to the incarnation of Simon Russell Beale in the television series The Hollow Crown, and with an obligatory stop, of course, in the majestic creation that Orson Welles made in Chimes at midnightSir John Falstaff has been visually associated with an older man, white-haired, thick beard, ragged, somewhat decrepit, drunken, clumsy in movement and preceded by a prominent belly as a result of his excesses: “The Belly ” Verdi affectionately calls him in his letters. When the curtain was raised on the Archbishop’s Theater, even with the last lights of twilight, a much younger man was seen on the scene, without a beard, dark hair, agile, vivacious, who is cooking his food surrounded of delicacies and spices as only a connoisseur or a good gourmet. An image, therefore, in the antipodes of the branded one in our imaginary of the character.
Nor is English baritone Christopher Purves the kind of singer we would hope to never find starring in. Falstaff. But it is not a matter of a casual choice: he is a great actor, he moves with ease on stage and breaks precisely, as it seems to be the desire of Kosky, with the traditional archetypes. The Australian translates all the frenzy of the first scene (which starts suddenly, without overture or instrumental preparation) with the liveliness that the smooth and millimeter writing of the wise old Verdi requires. The orchestra’s attack in C major coincides in fact with Purves’ thump to smash a garlic and these connections between pit and scene, between music and Falstaff’s culinary activity, do not stop happening. One of the best is the one that occurs after their followers Bardolfo and Pistola chant shouting an amen, after which Falstaff rebukes them saying: “Stop the antiphon. You yell at it in mishap“. And his subsequent knife strokes on the cutting board sound syncopated to the chords of the string in very strong. Kosky is both a man of the theater and a musician and his productions always benefit from this duplicity.
His scenic proposal is developed on a unique space, a kind of dining room of a modest eating house (distant transcript of the Posada de la Jarretera) that allows great freedom of movement for the different characters and whose clients of the second act (lonely, drinkers, dumb, gray, sad) look like something out of an Aki Kaurismäki movie. From there, everything is theater, great theater, and with few elements of props (tables, chairs, the bags with the laundry in the second act) and black suits and dimmed light in the last scene of the Windsor forest, everything we see makes sense and fits smoothly with the original, despite the fact that successive scene changes do not have their corresponding visual correlate. Kosky marks them with the curtain down, as does the transition from the first to the second act, with two voices in off (first female, then male, and midway through the second act, with both alternating or overlapping) who recite over the loudspeaker recipes for the first course (Bordeaux crabs), second (knight’s pularda) and dessert (pears). But they do it as if the preparation process were a markedly erotic, sensual, exciting sequence, in which the “Enjoy your meal!The end is full of ambiguity and condenses, of course, the two great pleasures that Kosky identifies in Falstaff, with whom he probably identifies not a little: cooking and sex.
Detail by detail, the Australian director is shaping this new Falstaff: when, in the famous monologue of the first act, he affirms that honor cannot return a lost hair to us, Purves takes off his wig and it is only then that we discover that it is, actually bald. Turning around, we see that, under her cooking apron, apart from a tank top, she is wearing only a tiny thong. Then other quirky wigs and clothes will arrive, such as when you wear, literally from head to toe (shoes included), a suit, shirt and vest with the same pattern on the walls and floor, as if you wanted to blend in with your surroundings (or pass inadvertent if the situation requires it). Compared to him – eccentric, unpredictable, fanciful, quixotic – all the other characters seem more conventional or, as when Ford impersonates Mr. Fontana with an impeccable suit and white shoes and concealing, like Falstaff, his baldness with a wig , mere caricatures of themselves. Kosky does not fall into the trap of forcing comedy and the four women (Alice, Meg, Quickly and Nannetta) maintain a lower stage profile, concentrating their humor on their respective vocal parts, including joint laughter. He gives Ford more tour (the same one that Boito and Verdi give him), while Bardolfo, Pistola and Dr. Cajus are also clearly portrayed: the first as an experienced rogue and at the end of the street, the second as the quintessential young Italian rogue, tough and simple, and the third as the snooty and deluded old man, doomed to become the final laughingstock in the last scene. During the escape, Kosky had the lights in the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Theater turn on: “All fooled!”, All mocked, on stage, but also off stage.
Falstaff it is always, by the very nature of opera, an eminently choral theatrical exercise. Kosky moves all the pieces on his simple and bare board with enormous scenic wisdom, more interested in drawing his new Falstaff through the accumulation of small theatrical details than in punctual effects (as had largely happened the day before in The Marriage of Figaro). Christopher Purves does not try to impersonate what he is not and brings his character to life with his vocal means, the same ones that he recently wore as Captain Balstrode in the sensational Peter Grimes of the Royal Theater or those who made him succeed here, in Aix-en-Provence, in 2012 as El Protector in Written on Skinby George Benjamin. His Falstaff does not suffer from a single excess, from a single incongruity, and is also the sum of successive and subtle psychological brushstrokes. Very well sung, with very careful Italian diction, many will miss singers with a more resounding voice, or more powerful bass, or greater physical presence, but none of that fits with Kosky’s conception. In the end, the Briton was very applauded, in all fairness, in the Archbishop’s Palace at the stroke of midnight.
Stéphane Degout, winner at Aix in 2016 as a reference Pelléas in the production of Pelléas and Mélisande by Katie Mitchell, she brings out her comic visions in a splendid Ford composition, especially commendable when she moves into Mr. Fontana. With full vocal faculties, with an equally exemplary Italian, he becomes the second great protagonist of the performance and focuses all eyes on his stage movements. Among the women, Giulia Semenzato’s sweet and lyrical Nannetta stands out, a real discovery. Carmen Giannattasio is perhaps not the ideal voice for Alice, nor is she the best of actresses, but she is not out of tune, especially when she lets out her voice without regard, along with the contained but precise Meg of Antoinne Dennefeld and, above all, to the highly experienced Daniela Barcellona as Mrs Quickly, who sang this same role at the Teatro Real in 2019. Here she has shown that her voice is still not what it was, especially in the bass, but that she does retain her mastery of body expression intact and, above all, facial: with very few gestures he can easily draw the laughter from the audience and win their sympathy.
The cast is completed with the soft and dreamy Fenton of Juan Francisco Gatell (the Don Ferrando of the unforgettable So do all of them by Michael Haneke), who was magnificent in his scenes with Nannetta and in his third act sonnet. Gregory Bonfatti (Cajus), Rodolphe Briand (Bardolfo) and Antonio di Matteo (Pistola) make up the excellent trio of male secondary players. Leading the orchestra, the same conductor as in the aforementioned Falstaff Madrid from 2019, the young and enthusiastic Daniele Rustioni. Now he has made a similar impression: it is a pleasure to see him conduct so relaxed and with such great command of the score, wasting smiles, drawing the melodies with his right hand, following all the vocal interventions with his lips. At the head of an orchestra worse than the Madrid Symphony, that of the Lyon Opera (of which he is the principal conductor), he achieves irreproachable results stylistically and musically, although, as in the Royal Theater, it is missed that he hardly explores the extremes and stay installed almost at all times in comfortable middle ground, away from potential mishaps.
The Festival d’Aix-en-Provence has therefore shown us two very different ways of approaching a comic opera: the convoluted and overloaded by Lotte de Beer, and the stripped and substantial by Barrie Kosky, which also opens a new and very interesting way of approaching Falstaff. The first was received with courtesy, the second with continued bravado. But, as of Friday, the laughter ends and the dramas begin: in this order, Tristan and Isolde Wagner, the Fight of Tancred and Clorinda Monteverdi and the world premiere of Innocence, scored by Kaija Saariaho. The entire history of the opera compressed into three installments.