Muti leads singers and Chicago Symphony in a delightful, world-class “Falstaff”

April 23, 2016
Riccardo Muti conducted the CSO in Verdi's "Falstaff" Thursday night with Ambrogio Maestri in the title role. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti conducted the CSO in Verdi’s “Falstaff” Thursday night with Ambrogio Maestri in the title role. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Did any octogenarian ever bid farewell to his art with a more youthful and effervescent work than Falstaff? Verdi’s commedia lirica tale of Shakespeare’s corpulent, drink- and wench-loving knight Sir John is, as Toscanini put it, “quicksilver from beginning to end,” a light-footed scherzo as engaging and affectionate as Verdi’s dramas are bleak and unforgiving.

Falstaff is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s main contribution to the citywide celebration of Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of the Bard of Avon’s death (which falls on Saturday).

This third and final installment in Riccardo Muti’s cycle of Verdi’s Shakespeare operas was the most eagerly awaited event of the CSO season and the orchestra’s first complete performance of Verdi’s operatic swan song in three decades.

As successful as Muti’s previous Verdi concert performances, were Thursday night’s performance managed to exceed even the high expectations for this event. With a world-beater Italian cast, wholly responsive, idiomatic playing from the orchestra and Muti–the world’s leading Verdian–in top form, this witty and delightful Falstaff is arguably Muti’s finest achievement in Chicago to date.

Adapted from Arrigo Boito from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor–with a few snatches from the Henry IV plays–the misadventures of the licentious, bibulous knight and his comeuppance from the women of Windsor shows Verdi exploring a new operatic style in his final work. Largely gone are traditional arias and duets, with the music put entirely at the service of the play and the words. The result is a score as witty and rollicking as it is innovative and forward-looking, with every twist and turn of the conversational libretto reflected in the orchestra.

With the large cast of ten singers arrayed across the front of the stage, dominating the proceedings vocally and physically was Ambrogio Maestri, one of the most acclaimed Falstaffs of our day. 

Maestri didn’t just sing Falstaff—he was Falstaff. Even sans sets and costumes, the baritone wholly inhabited the role, using his flexible facial expressions and Falstaffian physique, even clutching his imposing stomaco to comic effect. Vocally, Maestri was faultless, displaying a big ripe baritone, unleashing power when needed and vaulting through the rapid-fire wordplay seamlessly and with pinpoint precision.

In a 180-degree turn from his Macbeth with Muti and the CSO in 2013, Luca Salsi was a terrific Ford. The baritone managed to convey the jealous husband’s discomfiture and played off Maestri wonderfully in Act 2.

The Windsor wives proved a wonderfully simpatico group of conspirators. As Mistress Quickly, Daniella Barcellona was the characterful ringleader, with her faux beseechings to the clueless Falstaff. Eleonora Burratto was just as lively and insinuating as Alice Ford, the main object of Falstaff’s affections, with Laura Polverelli as Meg Page rounding out the trio.

As Nannetta and Fenton, Rosa Feola and Saimir Pirgu made as attractive and charismatic a pair of young lovers as one could ever hope for on the opera stage. Pirgu–the only non-Italian cast member—was an ardent lover, offering a honeyed “Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola,” with English hornist Scott Hostetler lending poetic obbligato support.  Likewise, Feola’s pure-toned and utterly beguiling Fairy Queen aria (“Sul fil d’un soffio etesio”) could have charmed all the resident Windsor Forest avians out of the trees.

Of his fellow Garter Inn reprobates, Saverio Fiore was an aptly dyspeptic Doctor Caius, Luca Dall’Amico a serviceable Pistola, and Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani the single weak link in the cast as a virtually inaudible Bardolfo.

Overseeing it all was the CSO’s music director. One expects great nights from Muti in Verdi but even by his standard, the podium direction was extraordinary, with the Italian conductor’s love for his compatriot’s music manifest in every bar.

In his five seasons as music director, Muti has rarely seemed as happy on the podium as Thursday night—energetically pointing rhythms, beaming at the big moments, and even indulging in some mutual head-wagging on trills with Maestri.

The extended rehearsal period clearly paid off with the conductor and his musicians putting across every hairpin turn, dynamic curlicue and instrumental rim shot in Verdi’s score. (Former CSO principal oboe Alex Klein was back in his old chair and performed with distinction.)

This CSO Falstaff is a high-water mark in Riccardo Muti’s Chicago tenure and is not to be missed.

Falstaff will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.

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