By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN – As part of the first edition of the annual Festtage since the Staatsoper here moved back to its headquarters on the Boulevard Unter den Linden, the company mounted a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff on March 25. The springtime festival was founded by music director Daniel Barenboim in 1996 with a focus on the operas of Wagner but has gradually branched out into lighter repertoire. A new production by Mario Martone marks the first time Barenboim is conducting Falstaff.
Martone, in his house debut, is interested in exploring the parallels between European society today and the time in which Verdi and Boito wrote their adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. In the aftermath of Italian unification, the director writes in program notes, Falstaff is a portrait both “melancholy and proud” and of “general decline.”
Europe today, meanwhile, has placed all its values in “money and the exclusion of any form of otherness.” The story is updated to modern-day Berlin in a biting commentary on how the Eurozone has increased economic disparities and eroded social values. Falstaff is a leather-clad gang leader who hangs out in gritty back courtyards and industrial buildings, while the bourgeois wives spend their time in leisure at a sauna oasis.
Sets by Margherita Palli lend a lifelike dimension, from the graffitied walls that recreate the German capital’s underground culture to the gleaming spa replete with a swimming pool.
The production is lavish enough to meet international festival standards but seems to stretch the house’s present technical capacities (after a preliminary opening in October, the Staatsoper closed temporarily to master its new computer-controlled stage machinery). The scene changes during Acts One and Two were unusually long at the premiere performance, disrupting the dramatic flow. The third act set at a club in an abandoned factory building (perhaps the famed Berghain), is more unified.
Martone demonstrates a natural feel for the opera’s farcical elements, but the production — both dramatically and musically — at times lacks the buoyancy that moves Verdi’s final opera along. Baritone Michael Volle, singing the title role for the first time, can break out into a falsetto and then produce ample chest tones that fill the house. His Italian diction was well cultivated, particularly in the first two acts, and his comic timing impressive. But his characterization lacks the ambiguity that makes the viewer at once despise and pity Falstaff.
The quartet of conspiring women is more convincing. Soprano Barbara Frittoli is a natural leader of the pack as Mrs. Alice Ford, with a seductive swagger and dusky, floating timbre. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona is an uptight Mrs. Quickly, bringing earthy chest tones to the famous Act Two aria “Reverenza!” in which she convinces Falstaff of his prospects with Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page.
Nadine Sierra fearlessly prances around in a bikini while producing the sweet, lyrical lines of exchanges with her lover Fenton, sung with a resonant, seductive tone by tenor Francesco Demuro. Katharina Kammerloher, as Mrs. Meg Page, at times lacks the volume to carry above the orchestra but is a coquettish presence. Alfredo Daza brings a rich baritone and sense of irony to the bourgeois Mr. Ford. Stephan Rügamer is villainous as Falstaff’s follower Bardolfo.
Barenboim leads the Staatskapelle Berlin in a performance that is now elegant, now too heavy for the ironic score. Staccato passages were not together with the singers in the first two acts, and the brass was at times so loud as to push the music toward the Wagnerian. The woodwinds, meanwhile, were colorful and well calibrated with the rest of the ensemble. Hopefully by the time the opera is reprised in December, both the stage machinery and the orchestra will have had time to adapt.
Falstaff concludes its current run with an April 1 performance before returning Dec. 20-Jan. 1. For tickets and information, go here.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.