I listened to two versions of Verdi’s Falstaff this weekend. The first was a video from the ROH, filmed in 1999 and available on DVD, although I watched it via YouTube, sub-par sound and all, because sometimes that is just how it works out.
The ROH production is all bright colors and odd angles – it reminded me of that technicolor version of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Seville from a few years back, also at the ROH (the one where Joyce DiDonato famously broke her foot and did the rest of the performances from a wheelchair). The two even have the odd comedy nose in common. But they’re by different directors and designers. In this case, the stage director is Graham Vick; set designs by Paul Brown.
In addition to the bright colors, the sets are designed such that the perspective looks slightly off – tables are tilted toward the audience, for example, and in Act II the cityscape you see in the background beyond the inn looks jumbled and out of alignment. I think the idea is both to evoke 15th century northern European paintings and to underline the cheerfulness and good humor of the opera itself; in both cases it succeeds. (And the spray of what I am going to assume is vomit across the corner of Falstaff’s mattress in Act I is perfectly disgusting.) Costumes are of a piece with the sets. Everyone is in bright vibrant colors – or, in the case of Falstaff himself, a grubby shirt with bright tights and what is perhaps best described as a “statement” codpiece.
The performance itself has a feel of polish and ease which both jibes with the bright sets and allows you to hear the complexity of the music with great clarity (despite, in my case, all the hiss and distortion above a certain pitch and volume level b/c I was too cheap to just buy the damn DVD). This opera is one long series of ensembles – I listened to this performance, and then went back and listened to the version of it that I have on CD, which is a concert performance from 2004 with the London Symphony and a series of soloists most of whom I have not encountered again (it’s a nice performance, although the LSO version’s Falstaff, Michele Pertusi, ain’t got nothing on Bryn Terfel, who sings the role for the ROH one, and he’s awesome) and I realized I had forgotten how dense this opera is. I remember the first time I heard it my reaction was along the lines of “this is noisy and confusing and too many people are singing at once; I am going back to Handel now.” I find it less confusing now, in part because I’m more familiar with it and also because I can understand enough (not all, by any means, but enough) of the Italian to follow the action a little more closely when it’s audio only, which helps. But there is certainly a lot going on at once. It’s one of those operas that really show how the art from is more than just drama that’s being sung – because you can have eight people ‘talking’ at once and the effect, because they’re musical lines as well as words, is to express something more than each would have done on their own. One effect is that you can pack a great deal into a short amount of time and you have to listen to it over and over to extract it all, which I find I rather like.