Slice of Life: Falstaff at the Staatsoper Hamburg

Verdi – Falstaff

Falstaff – Ambrogio Maestri
Ford – Markus Brück
Fenton – Oleksiy Palchykov
Dr Cajus – Jürgen Sacher
Bardolfo – Daniel Kluge
Pistola – Tigran Martirossian
Alice Ford – Maija Kovalevska
Nannetta – Elbenita Kajtazi
Mrs Quickly – Nadezhda Karyazina
Meg Page – Ida Aldrian

Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg / Axel Kober.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Staatsoper, Hamburg, Germany.  Sunday, January 19th, 2020.

One might not immediately associate a director with such a strong social conscience as Calixto Bieito with comedy, but in assigning him this Falstaff, the Staatsoper Hamburg has given us a delectably engaging evening – just the medicine needed in these dark days.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Bieito sets the action within and without a remarkably authentic British pub, one that could definitely belong in Windsor, or indeed any other small British town.  In fact, Ambrogio Maestri’s Falstaff could be a regular of a similar establishment – sitting outside in his armchair drinking, or taking over the kitchen to make an extensive meal.  Similarly, the merry wives of Windsor are a bunch of ladies equally fond of a good time in their own way.  Bieito and his set designer, Susanne Gschwender, brilliantly illustrate the disintegration of Falstaff’s life – from initial hedonist to humiliated at the hands of a suburban fancy dress party – through the set itself disintegrating in front of our eyes and Falstaff opening Act 3 in that most intimate of places, on the toilet.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Bieito’s staging abounds in so many insightful little details.  Not only a noted Falstaff, Maestri is also known for his cooking videos on the YouTube and it was an inspired touch to have them on the TV screen of the Boar’s Head pub.  Meg and Quickly are very likely a couple (taking a new interpretation of the ‘gaie comari di Windsor’) and Falstaff also seems to have driven the Innkeeper, actress Orchidee Brömme, to drink.  I also liked how he made Fenton and Nannetta’s relationship a lot less chaste that we often see, with Nannetta taking a pregnancy test in the same washroom that Falstaff hid in.  Similarly, the marital tension between Ford and Alice, each trying to outdo the other, was palpable.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Of course, any performance of Falstaff lives in the chemistry of the assembled cast and the sheer joy that this cast clearly had in performing this production, spraying sparkling wine over the stage, or horsing around in their fancy dress, was absolutely infectious.  This was an utterly uplifting evening, founded on an ensemble cast that evidently adored working with each other.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

It transpires that Maestri has performed the title role over 270 times – and I’ve seen a few of those over the years.  Tonight was different.  It seemed that Maestri has found an even greater freedom and authority in his interpretation of the role, integrating himself even more into the character and throwing himself into everything asked of him.  The voice is huge and dispatched with genuinely uninhibited service to his character.  The familiarity that Maestri has with the role meant that it was impossible to tell where Ambrogio began and Falstaff ended – especially as, thanks to his native diction, everything was sung off the text and the tone varied with finesse.  Maestri gave us a literal giant of a performance tonight.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

He was joined by an irresistible quartet of ladies.  Maija Kovalevska was an equally uninhibited Alice, singing her music with a warmly lyrical soprano and an open, generous tone.  Ida Aldrian savoured the text delightfully as Meg, the voice full of orange-toned juiciness.  Nadezhda Karyazina sang Quickly with an agreeably tart mezzo, with copper-toned sheen and registers even.  That said, I suspect the role sits quite low for her – the lower reaches of the part were rather gingerly dispatched, instead of the chesty trumpeting one might expect in the ‘reverenza’s.  Elbenita Kajtazi was a lovely Nannetta, floating her high sustained writing with deliciously feather-light ease, the voice seemingly floating on air.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Her Fenton was Oleksiy Palchykov who at first sounded a little too robust, with the voice sitting just under the note.  By Act 3, he had warmed up nicely, tuning improved and he sang with ardent lyricism.  He was also very game, running around the stage in his underwear after Ford discovered him and Nannetta in bed.  Markus Brück certainly hectored forcefully as Ford.  The text was always nicely forward and he was alive to the wit and the comedy as he disguised himself as Fontana.  Perhaps there was a tendency for him to give too much, the voice drying out at higher volumes, but his ‘È sogno o realtà?’ was definitely gripping.  In the further supporting roles, Daniel Kluge was a terrific Bardolfo, blessed with fantastic comic timing, his sandy tenor a good size and the pointing of the text full of wit.  Tigran Martirossian brought his velvety bass to Pistola, while Jürgen Sacher was a deadpan Dr Cajus, securely sung.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The house chorus also seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly in their fancy dress attire.  The ladies had some initial pitch disagreements, but got there soon enough, and the closing fugue was just as energetic as it needed to be.  Axel Kober led a reading that looked forward, making this score sound a lot more ‘modern’, and indeed revolutionary, than I’ve heard it before.  He brought out so many colours in the brass, hints of composers yet to come such as Stravinsky or Shostakovich perhaps, making this glorious score sound like the start of a new musical era, rather than the end.  The strings were a little scrappy in places – and there were a few passing moments where stage/pit coordination was somewhat tentative in the ensembles, but this kind of thing will settle as the run proceeds.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

What will stay with me from this Falstaff is how much of a slice of life Bieito and the cast gave us.  The jubilance on stage, the ladies who enjoy a good time, the jealous husband, the small-time tricksters, and the decadent glutton – there are people like this in every town and city.  As always with Bieito, the social conscience is still present, here highlighting people with experiences that might not be as immediate to those attending the opera, yet always giving these people a chance to tell their own stories, without judgment.  Satisfyingly sung, above all by Maestri with a new-found freedom making the role his own, and conducted with a remarkable ear for orchestral colour, this was a highly enjoyable evening in the theatre.

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