Milan last greeted Verdi’s final opera Falstaff in 2004. Nine years ago, Teatro alla Scala was closed, pending restoration, so the Giorgio Strehler production curtained under Muti's baton at Teatro degli Arcimboldi on the city's outskirts, dedicated to Tito Gobbi's death-year 20th anniversary for his enduring, late 1950s whiskered Falstaff with Herbie von Karajan and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
It was also the year of OC's inaugural Milan visit, and over summer break, she visited La Scala's museum, its collections temporarily housed in a stunning palazzo on Corso Magenta that overlooked Santa Maria della Grazia. The Northern Italian city of understated, un-boastful elegance struck OC as one who never tried too hard -- the very definition of cool -- and instantly reverberated with New York-based OC. Aaaand you guys pretty much know the rest of the story.
Falstaff (tonight in its penultimate replication) is the only Robert Carsen- stamped production in Teatro alla Scala’s 2012-13 season (in coproduction with Royal Opera House and the Canadian Opera Company) and as Carsen Crusaders, we weren’t going to miss it. We find his b-side, hidden track of ripe sexuality -- never vulgar or desperate (unless it has to be) -- and his fashion title familiarity a winning match for Milan, and since we’re not convinced that Falstaff needs a traditional Shakespearian director to stage it, we loved it.
We've never supported a buffo Falstaff staging and feel that it needs a delicate balance between commedia lirica and opera seria -- a fat knight mocked in his twilight, a bittersweet glimpse of flawed man too arrogant to realize it until everything converges in absolute absurdity -- tutto nel mondo e' burla -- and that's where a lot of lazy directors get it wrong.
The curtain parts on The Garter Inn, idealized as a widescreen, windowless luxury hotel suite in rich coiffured wood by Paul Steinberg, sinking under the detritus of late night feasting, a dozen room service carts piled with silver trays. Falstaff lounges on his throne, an enormous bed, and eventually rises, hung-over in bare feet and grimy grey pajamas.
Our last live Terfel-Scala-Carsen date was on December 7, 2011 where the Welsh bass-baritone played a smirking, naughty, fratboy Leorello in Carsen's new Don Giovanni. Frankly, we were worried that his Falstaff would be a Shakespearian rehash of the Mozart sidekick, but Terfel shone as a commandeering, heliocentric Falstaff that dipped into remorseful melancholy during the last Act, post-Thames dip, sharing his disillusionment with the one entity that couldn't outright mock him -- a live stage-horse gregariously chomping on flowers. He brought wit and underside of dignity and madness, vocally tight and loose, strutting around in weekend tweeds in the pensive "Va vecchio John" or affecting falsetto over a massive prosthetic belly.
Act I, Part Two introduces the Merry Wives of Windsor Club as impeccably-groomed ladies who lunch at their favorite country club restaurant. Costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel bristle with P.G. Wodehouse Anglophilia for the men while the merry wives are tucked into late 1950s-early 1960s dresses in bright, well-cut fabrics.
The Wives Club is gossipy and buoyant, led by Carmen Giannattasio’s delicious Alice, whose naturalistic, charismatic stage presence identifies her as the clique queen. Later, as they convene to Alice's kitchen for Act II, part II in a shiny roost of 1950s appliances and swirling wait staff where the girls swap cocktails and gossip, ones realizes that Carsen strength is that he realizes that the staging needs to be absurdly delicious -- not necessarily through the characters themselves, and he's careful not to turn Falstaff or the merry wives into caricatures.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux's Mrs. Quickly was an operatic, feminized Melissa McCarthy from Bridesmaids -- quick-footed, heavy-witted and unapologetically fierce. *love* During the Reverenza scene between Falstaff in Act II, she sparkles with modern sass. Massimo Cavalletti's Ford (and Signor Fontana dressed like an ivory smuggler) was lovely and he sang “E sogno? o realta'?” with a full-voiced, emotional vulnerability.
Nannetta as Ekaterina Sadovnikova and Meg as Manuela Custer sang earnestly. The rest of the ensemble -- Antonio Poli as Fenton, Carlo Bosi as Dr. Cajus, Riccardo Botta as Bardolfo, Alessandro Guerzoni as Pistola -- all held their own.
Harding's late Verdi was more-scholastic, less-buoyant than we like it. We love Falstaff for its twinkling, glimmering passages of onomato-poetic expression and color, a score that bursts with the jauntiness of new love and puts the spring back in ones step. But Harding (talentedly) glazed over those moments with pure speed. Adversely, in the score's darkest moments, Harding was at his best -- when Falstaff counts down the hours in the final scene in Windsor Park, a deeply resonant, trembling solitude – Harding nails it. The greatest men of their genres might read volumes into that, but we’ll stop the review right here. OK Bye!