Royal Opera's "Falstaff": Big knight on a big horse

Tue May 22, 2012 7:15am EDT
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - A new production of Verdi's "Falstaff" at the Royal Opera features a big man on a big horse, and it could only flop if the Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri could not sing the title role, which is manifestly not the case.

Maestri, who has sung Shakespeare's rotund knight as portrayed in Verdi's last opera to high praise in opera houses around the world, reprises his specialty in a new production by Canadian director Robert Carsen that is a bit like "Falstaff" meets the 1950s sitcoms "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners", but with Italian conductor Daniel Gatti in the pit and a mostly strong supporting cast, delivers the goods.

Updated to the 1950s from the Elizabethan England of the Shakespeare plays it is based on, the production which opened last week and will play on big outdoor screens around Britain on May 30, features an almost blindingly yellow 1950s-period kitchen in one scene extending the entire width of the stage.

The kitchen belongs to Alice Ford, one of the wealthy women the proud but impecunious Falstaff is trying to seduce for love and profit, and it may be the most in-your-face set at Covent Garden since a production of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" a few years ago outfitted the witch's kitchen with gleaming chrome designer ovens and a freezer locker where the children she intended to bake were suspended on racks.

Carsen has transferred a gossipy garden scene to a swanky restaurant and brings a real horse, eating real hay, on stage in the last act because, Carsen told Reuters, Falstaff is meant to be dressed up as a hunter, and so must have a mount, and the horse does its bit to keep up the eating theme that runs from the opening curtain to the finale.

With its cast of scheming and upwardly mobile women, a bit like the character Lucille Ball played in her 1950s sitcom, and with an indelibly memorable fat man, like Jackie Gleason as the overweight bus driver Ralph Kramden in "The Honeymooners", Carsen hardly seems far from the mark when he describes his "Falstaff" as "a situation comedy, and in many ways it's like the first musical, too".

Carsen even has a response for anyone who has seen the last act before, in which the fat knight is tormented by the rest of the cast dressed up as fairies and elves who he thinks will destroy him because he has intruded on their midnight revels around a tree in Windsor Forest called Herne's Oak.

In this production, there's no tree, and the stage instead is covered with tables pushed together to serve for a banquet.   Continued...