A Tale of Two Cities
On the walk from the Staatsoper Unter den Linden to the U-Bahn, one passes a series of clean, slightly bland buildings, mostly offices, with a few higher-end hotels and restaurants for business travellers and rich tourists. If you go underground and ride the train just a few stops south into Kreuzberg, you find yourself in a very different city; just off one of the larger streets, you’ll find a pub, located in the courtyard of a crumbling brick building that used to house a textile manufacturer, where a group of punks, young and old, gather to smoke cigarettes and drink two-euro pints of Kindl into the early hours. It is in this pub – or one of the half-dozen in the neighbourhood exactly like it – where Mario Martone’s extraordinary, highly recommendable new production of Falstaff begins.
Mr Martone’s staging – which appeared as the flagship production at the Staatsoper Berlin’s annual Festtage – localised the action in an immediately recognisable world not terribly far from the opera house, pitting Falstaff and his band of post-revolutionary burn-outs against the pristine, bourgeois surroundings of the Ford residence. It was, in its first two acts, tremendously funny, finding a seemingly limitless supply of comedic potential in the spiteful cynicism of the merry wives and the bloated self-importance of the title character. Yet it was not content to remain merely a comedy, and by the end its light vignettes of class-struggle had developed almost imperceptibly into an oddly poignant critique on the ephemeral soul of the city itself.
Falstaff, whom we find sitting at a bench in our familiar courtyard Kneipe at the beginning of the opera, is a man whose revolution ended years ago, but who refused to surrender to the ‘square’ world. He retained the accoutrements of his younger days – the mutton chops, the leather jacket, the lack of gainful employment – and his longevity eventually earned him a kind of renown, both among his crusty brethren, and even among the younger generation who spend their days in the same pub, spray-painting slogans onto signs in preparation for a revolution that may never arrive. This Falstaff is neither the boastful coward of Henry IV nor the canny buffoon of Merry Wives; his flaw is that he has started buying into his own myth. He believes that his years spent keeping it real in Kreuzberg have somehow made him irresistible to the rich, fashionable ladies in their modern detached houses out beyond the Ringbahn; he does not realise that, to them, his attachment to outmoded ideals is precisely what makes him a fool.
Daniela Barcellona (Mrs. Quickly), Nadine (Sierra), Barbara Frittoli (Mrs. Alice Ford), and Katharina Kammerloher (Mrs. Meg Page) in Verdi's Falstaff. Mario Martone, director. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, March 2018. © Matthias Baus, 2018
Alice and her circle, who lead charmed lives drinking bubbly by the pool, seem less offended by Falstaff’s amorous intentions than by everything he represents. Not only is Alice resolutely uninterested in Falstaff, she appears not even to be flattered by his advances; yet her desire to teach him a lesson comes across less as revenge for an imagined slight than as an entertaining diversion. Beneath the laughter and mockery of this production’s merry wives one finds the subtle but unsettling cruelty of social superiority. Falstaff, to the very end, holds onto the belief that his existence is what gives flavour to the bland lives of the Fords; yet the conclusion implies that a rapprochement between Falstaff’s world and Alice’s was never even a possibility. The fact that the opera ends with the bourgeois faction slumming it with Falstaff in an abandoned shopping centre turned sex-club, passing a joint and drinking bottles of cheap pilsener does little to remove the slightly bitter taste.
For Falstaff, of course, is right: his world of anarchists and squatters and burn-outs is exactly what gives flavour to the city, what keeps it from being just another European capital in the twenty-first century. In applying the narrative logic of the opera to the urban space of Berlin, Mr Martone has ended up with an unexpectedly perfect encapsulation of the contradictory forces shaping the modern city. The Alice Fords and Meg Pages may be fascinated by the squalor and danger Falstaff represents, but they can only ever engage with it on their own terms. They want the flavour without the offending ingredients; and like those people who come here hoping to live in an edgy neighbourhood with an organic supermarket, they are capable only of destroying the very urban character that attracts them.
Michael Volle (Sir John Falstaff) and Ensemble in Verdi's Falstaff. Mario Martone, director. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, March 2018. © Matthias Baus, 2018
If the underlying ramifications were somewhat gloomy, the staging itself was an absolute delight. The wonderfully observed, beautifully detailed sets by Margherita Palli intensified the contrast between squalor and luxury without overstating its case. The pub was a meticulous creation of graffiti and decay, and the spotless terrace of the Ford house – complete with real swimming pool – was no less convincing. (The rapid transition from one set to the other between the first two scenes of Act One even earned an audible gasp from an audience not normally impressed by such stagecraft). When Bardolfo and Pistola, decked out in studded denim and biker gear, arrived into this world of bathing beauties and white-jacketed servants, it captured the sense of a vast, unbridgeable gulf between the opera’s two social worlds.
Mr Martone liked to keep the stage busy: characters came and went, weaving through the background engaged in matters often unrelated to the opera itself. Yet this did not prevent him from rendering the action with astonishing clarity: the second scene of the first act, in which almost all of the opera’s different schemes and counter-schemes are set into motion, can easily grow incomprehensible, but here everything unfolded with assurance. The humour, of which there was plenty, grew naturally from the characters and their situations and rarely seemed contrived. If the third act couldn’t quite match the first two for sheer exuberance – the comedy seemed less spontaneous and the setting slightly out of place (would it have been too obvious to set the final scene in Görlitzer Park?) – it still retained a considerable energy; and the decision to have Falstaff spark up what was almost certainly some primo bud just before the procession of the fairies offered perhaps the most plausible explanation for why he was willing to take the existence of the spirits so seriously.
Jürgen Sacher (Dr. Cajus), Michael Volle (Sir John Falstaff) and Stephan Rügamer (Bardolfo) in Verdi's Falstaff. Mario Martone, director. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, March 2018. © Matthias Baus, 2018
In the title role, Michael Volle provided the evening less with a performance than a total embodiment. Anyone hoping for a more traditional buffo approach might not have found it in Mr Volle, but if one wanted stage-filling charisma, commanding tone, lithe phrasing and unsurpassable comic timing, one could hardly have hoped for anyone better. He approached the role with indelible swagger and a complete lack of self-deprecation, and the more confident he grew, the more ridiculous he became. There were far too many great moments in his performance to enumerate, but his initial description of Alice and subsequent lecture on the nature of honour in the first act, his attempts to seduce Alice in the second, his two magnificently awkward encounters with the initially unreceptive Mistress Quickly, and the entirety of his meeting with ‘Signor Fontana’ were among the obvious highlights.
Alfredo Daza used his deeper tone and crisp delivery to establish Ford as the severe, inflexible counterforce to Falstaff’s careless ease. In his visit to the pub in the Second Act he maintained an air of uptight disdain right up to his discovery of Falstaff’s plans ‘between two and three’, at which point he began to unravel with unstoppable fury. Ford can often seem merely hapless, but Mr Daza underlined the anger and potential danger to great effect. Francesco Demuro sang an appealing Fenton full of youthful desire, and Stephan Rügamer gave unexpected nobility to Bardolfo; when he sung of honour, one almost believed him.
Barbara Frittoli was so thoroughly at ease in the role of Alice – who emerged as a kind of first among equals within her cohort of merry wives – that the grace of the character effectively concealed the demands of the performance; although capable of exquisite high-notes and agile phrasing, her considerable technical command was always deployed with restraint. As Nannetta, Nadine Sierra floated delicate sustained notes over an unfailingly elegant performance that nonetheless possessed a welcome edge of the mischievous. Daniela Barcellona’s nicely rendered Mistress Quickly summoned perhaps the greatest outward disgust for Falstaff, delivering her respectful greetings through clenched teeth and plotting against him with especial scorn. Even the oft-sidelined Meg Page found a strong interpreter in Katharina Kammerloher, who gave a sparkling lightness to the letter-reading scene.
For the first three scenes, Daniel Barenboim maintained a great dramatic tension even at a pace more relaxed than one normally finds. As much as Mr Martone’s direction, it was Mr Barenboim’s willingness to give the singers ample space that allowed the action of the second scene to unfold so naturally; and his clear rapport with Mr Volle helped to turn Falstaff’s ‘honour’ monologue into a celebration of comedic timing. It was only in the final three scenes that the slower speeds didn’t always work to the advantage of the drama: although there was great tension leading up to the discovery of Fenton and Nannetta behind the screen in the second act, the scene’s potential for joyful chaos was somewhat muted. Falstaff’s torment in the third act came across as similarly measured, crying out for greater abandon. The Staatskapelle, however, sounded superb throughout the evening, rising to the climaxes with unstinting weight, but adding highlights and flourishes to the action with a light touch.
Although the Staatsoper’s new Falstaff had only a three performances in its initial Festtage outing, it is already scheduled to return (with a similar cast under Mr Barenboim) in December of this year. In the meantime, Berlin will continue its transformation into a modern European capital; the cranes will rise to create new luxury flats, and the courtyard pubs where old revolutionaries used to spend their idle days will be transformed into offices for tech start-ups. If this Falstaff is still playing in Berlin in ten years – and there is no reason it shouldn’t be – it may stand not only as an inspired staging of a great opera, but also as a monument to what we lost and how we lost it.