Watch two productions of the same opera in quick succession, and the first, if it’s good, will overlay the second. And thus it is, so far as I’m concerned, with the Garsington and Royal Opera House productions of Falstaff.
Bruno Ravella’s new version for the country-house opera is magically subtle and conceptually bold; Robert Carsen’s revived Covent Garden version seems plodding and earthbound by comparison.
But since its trump card is Bryn Terfel in the title role, it gets off to a flying start as the corpulent Sir John Falstaff presides from his bed while his thieving henchmen Bardolph and Pistol (Michael Colvin and Craig Colclough respectively) give Carlo Bosi’s irate Dr Caius the slip. He brushes them off like flies, then attends to weightier matters, notably his magnificent paunch and the honour it bestows on him. His demolition of the concept of honour itself is delivered with lofty and complacent disdain. So far, so good.
The women who spring traps for him are nicely characterised and make a fine vocal balance: sopranos Ana Maria Martinez and Marie McLaughlin as Alice and Meg, ethereal-toned Anna Prohaska opposite contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s wickedly commanding Mistress Quickly.
However, one waits in vain for the needle-sharp harmonised laughter when they sing as a quartet, or even for a proper linkage with the musical laughter of the orchestra: the technical challenges of this work demand more rehearsal time than they probably got for this production. But when the orchestra is called upon to crack instrumental jokes of its own, they are indeed forthcoming, thanks to Nicola Luisotti’s refined direction in the pit.
Frédéric Antoun’s Fenton is sweetly-sung but delivered in semi-detached recital mode; Simon Keenlyside’s thunderous Ford, on the other hand, is an intensely physical creation, mingling comedy and impotent pathos.
So why does this production feel so under-energised? Part of the reason is Paul Steinberg’s design, an oak-panelled set on which the furniture is moved at such length between scenes that dramatic impetus is repeatedly lost.
And the direction feels mechanical: the whole thing is neither funny enough nor sufficiently cruel, particularly the midnight high jinks in Windsor Great Park, where Falstaff becomes the inert focus rather than a man turning his torment into triumph.
No, anyone wanting to see a definitive Falstaff between now and 22 July should go to Garsington, where Henry Waddington turns the title role into something profoundly comic and richly human – both qualities that are lacking in Terfel’s performance, despite its technical accomplishment.
Until 21 July (roh.org)