Scintillating Comedy: Falstaff at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Verdi – Falstaff

Falstaff – Nicola Alaimo
Ford – Simone Piazzola
Fenton – Matthew Swensen
Dr Cajus – Christian Collia
Bardolfo – Antonio Garés
Pistola – Gianluca Buratto
Alice Ford – Ailyn Pérez
Nannetta – Francesca Boncompagni
Mrs Quickly – Sara Mingardo
Meg Page – Caterina Piva

Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino / John Eliot Gardiner.
Stage director – Sven-Eric Bechtolf

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Teatro del Maggio, Florence, Italy.  Sunday, December 5th, 2021.

Tonight’s performance of Falstaff marked the final performance in the run of this new production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf of Verdi’s swansong at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.  For this run, the house engaged a mainly Italian cast, joined by selected Hispanophone and/or US singers, led by John Eliot Gardiner.  The result was an effervescent evening, received with audible pleasure by the Maggio audience.

Bechtolf gave us a staging that was unobtrusive and allowed the narrative to flow logically.  The costumes (Kevin Pollard) and sets (Julian Crouch) were traditional, placing the action in a Windsor of Shakespearian times.  Bechtolf made much use of the cast standing, frozen on stage while other action went on around them – for instance as Nannetta and Fenton declared their love – and the movements around the set were executed fluently.  The comedy was obtained through the sheer electric chemistry throughout the entire cast – this was clearly a group of people who absolutely adored performing together, and the joy burst forth from the stage into the public.  Bechtolf’s isn’t a staging that brings any particular new insights into the work.  He presents it clearly and allows the work to tell its own story.  That said, he made the Fords relationship a lot more tender and loving than we often see it, in a way it felt that Ford was in on Alice’s joke from the start.  Although it did then make me wonder why he would be so determined to force Nannetta to marry Dr Cajus.  Otherwise, this was an evening that lived through the individual performances and through the excellence of the musical preparation.

Photo: © Michele Monasta – Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Gardiner’s conducting was revelatory.  He obtained playing of the very highest quality from the Maggio orchestra.  There was something exhilarating in how Gardiner focused on the rhythmic impetus of the piece, creating an unanimity of approach between stage and pit that was staggering in its accuracy.  Those quickfire vocal ensembles were dispatched with the kind of easy virtuosity that belies hours of preparation in the rehearsal studio.  The Maggio strings played with minimal vibrato, making Verdi’s score sound even more original and creative and, paradoxically perhaps, made it sound like a forerunner of the early twentieth century masters.  Attack was crisp and the strings coped with the rapid writing with ease, and again, with remarkable accuracy.  Gardiner coaxed out a wealth of instrumental colour from the band, bringing out the full ingenuity of Verdi’s scoring, aided by the clarity of the glorious Maggio acoustic. 

Photo: © Michele Monasta – Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

The performance also took wing thanks to the clarity of diction throughout the entire cast.  Nicola Alaimo was an outsize presence in the title role.  Big of voice, he held the stage through sheer magnetism.  His was a highly witty Falstaff, not afraid to laugh at himself, and with so much communicated through the text.  At fuller volumes there was a tendency for pitch to spread, but when he pulled back on the tone he sang with generosity, even if the tone was on the dry side.  Simone Piazzola gave us a similarly generously voiced Ford.  More than on other occasions when I have heard him, it felt that the registers were a lot more integrated, with more of a sense of a firm column of sound, even from top to bottom.  He sang his ‘è sogno?’ with focused tone, the top shooting into the auditorium with laser focus.

Photo: © Michele Monasta – Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Ailyn Pérez gave us a glamorous Alice, the voice of rare pulchritude.  She soared with radiant ease over the ensembles, finding a joyful sunniness to the tone.  Sara Mingardo gave us a warmly sung Quickly.  Her chianti-toned contralto descended to the depths with fullness.  Moreover, she made hers a Quickly well and truly sung with elegance, bringing out the beauty of the role as well as its comedy.  As with the remainder of the cast, she combined voice and physicality to great comic effect.  Caterina Piva sang Meg in a wonderfully even and burnished mezzo.  Francesca Boncompagni was a great discovery as Nannetta.  Hers is a voice that is soufflé light, with a charming combination of duskiness and a fast vibrato.  She made intelligent use of that vibrato, floating her ‘come fa la luna’ by pulling the vibrato from the tone and allowing it to hover in the air with lunar beauty.  A singer most definitely looking out for.

Photo: © Michele Monasta – Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In the remainder of the cast, Matthew Swensen sang a handsomely voiced Fenton, his tenor well-placed, bright in tone.  Gianluca Burrato sang Pistola with a big, healthy bass.  Antonio Garés brought tireless energy to Bardolfo, running around the stage with glee, and sang his role in a similarly bright, focused tenor.  Christian Collia sang Dr Cajus in a peppery tenor, full of character and wit.

This was an absolutely uplifting evening in the theatre.  While the staging did not make one reconsider the work, it did allow Verdi and Boito’s masterpiece to unfold easily and unobtrusively.  Where this performance offered bounteous rewards was in its musical values and the sheer joy that radiated throughout the cast.  Superbly sung, with revelatory conducting and orchestral playing of the very highest quality, this was an evening that will stay long in the memory.  It was received with an enormous ovation from the Florentine public, clearly also having the time of their lives.

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