All a Joke: Falstaff at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

Verdi – Falstaff

Falstaff – Christopher Purves
Ford – Stéphane Degout
Fenton – Juan Francisco Gatell
Dr Cajus – Gregory Bonfatti
Bardolfo – Rodolphe Briand
Pistola – Antonio di Matteo
Alice Ford – Carmen Giannattasio
Nannetta – Giulia Semenzato
Mrs Quickly – Daniela Barcellona
Meg Page – Antoinette Dennefeld

Chœur de l’Opéra de Lyon, Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon / Daniele Rustioni
Stage director – Barrie Kosky.

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.  Saturday, July 10th, 2021.

Tonight’s Falstaff, in a new production by Barrie Kosky, marked the second evening of this visit to the Théâtre de l’Archevêché.  This Falstaff is a co-production with the Opéra de Lyon, Komische Oper, and the Bolshoi.  The Festival invited the Lyon forces to provide the orchestra and chorus for the evening, led by their music director, Daniele Rustioni. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Kosky gives us what is an efficient and business-like production.  He sets the action in a Garter Inn that has both matching floor and wallpaper.  Falstaff himself seems to be the owner of an extensive set of wigs, which he changes with regularity.  The Fords’ home contains a magnificent bed as well as an extensive array of cakes.  The sparseness of the settings created a significant focus on the characters and how they were moved around the stage.  In the final scene, the chorus and principals were moved around efficiently, in the familiar Kosky formations.  And yet, this production left me rather cold.  It was slick, everybody moved to where they needed to be, yet (with some exceptions) it was hard to really get a grasp on who the characters actually were.  Kosky also used the scene changes to play a disembodied voice reading out recipes, which brought back some traumatic memories of his Carmen a few years ago. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Christopher Purves is an experienced exponent of the title role, and this could be seen in his larger-than-life performance.  The voice is in decent shape, although the top went missing in his ‘l’onore’ monologue.  Vibrations have widened somewhat but were generally even.  He caressed the language lovingly, making so much of the text.  Interestingly, in Kosky’s reading, his was not an oversized Falstaff physically and vocally, at least from my seat, he sounded somewhat medium-scale for the role.  Similarly, Daniela Barcellona is an experienced Quickly and this could be seen in the confidence of her deliciously witty stage presence and impeccable comic timing.  She made much of a generous chest voice, but the registers aren’t always ideally integrated. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Stéphane Degout gave us a sensational Ford.  He incarnated the jealous husband not only through his tireless physicality, but also through his vocalism.  His baritone sounded in fabulous shape, a well-connected column of sound that filled the house with ease.  Throughout there was never any sense of him compromising the integrity of the tone, but instead of utterly secure singing and a top that seemed limitless.  Seriously impressive.  Juan Francisco Gatell gave us an elegantly sung Fenton in his bright, easily-produced and forward tenor, and he also savoured the text.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

His Nannetta was Giulia Semenzato who made an attempt to float her high-lying phrases, although her tuning up there frequently fell victim to gravity, the voice sitting under the note.  Carmen Giannattasio sang an enthusiastic Alice Ford.  Her soprano is a distinctive instrument, somewhat curdled in tone, generously vibrating.  Antoinette Dennefeld’s slender and youthful mezzo was a positive presence in the ensembles.  Antonio di Matteo made for an imposing Pistola.  A tall guy with a big voice to match, his bass is an instrument of impressive depth of tone.  Most definitely a name to watch.  The remaining roles were adequately taken.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Rustioni led a fluent and quicksilver reading, one that kept the forces together with impressive precision in the quickfire ensemble writing.  His orchestra played well for him, the strings displaying an impressive unanimity of approach with intonation spot on, even in those treacherous high-lying passages, and not a hint of scrappiness.  The brass was impressively firm all night.  The chorus dispatched their intricate stage movements with confidence and sang with good blend.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

This was an evening that clearly provided much enjoyment to members of the Aix audience.  I must admit to it leaving me with a much more equivocal impression.  The evening as a whole was efficiently dispatched, but I missed a sense of the humanity within and of well-rounded characters who I genuinely believed in.  Last night’s Figaro was a mess, but at least I left at the end with a sense that the principals genuinely believed in a shared vision of what they were performing.  Here, there were some individually vivid performances, particularly from the experienced exponents of their roles, but at the same time, there was a sense of going through the motions and of a coldness that I found less than engaging.  This isn’t the first time I’ve had this impression with some of Kosky’s recent work.  Musically, with Purves, Barcellona, Degout and Gatell in particular, there was a good deal to enjoy.  Dramatically, I left less than convinced. 

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