After years of producing great tragic operas, Verdi had the last laugh with Falstaff. His final opera, written in his late seventies, declares "All the world's a joke". The same is true of the opera, and the affable Falstaff - in this production, Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel clad in a mountainous fat-suit - is usually the punch-line. His primary goal is to increase his already impressive figure: "My kingdom is my belly and I plan to expand it." This imperialism leads to the pursuit of a pair of married ladies (Alice Ford and Meg Page) for their cash, launching a tangle of plots and counterplots. Anthony Michaels-Moore, who plays Ford, Alice's jealous husband, reckons Verdi turned to comedy "because he'd got all his tragedy out. He had such an unhappy time, particularly around his thirties with his wife and his children dying. It was only really when he reached his ripe old age all the pain and torture was worked out. The last line of the opera sums up Verdi: he's having a joke. I think he probably knew that this was going to be his last. I don't think he felt he had anything else that he needed to say really."
Like Falstaff, this production is larger-than-life. Directed by Graham Vick and designed by Paul Brown, it's described as 'colourful'. Michaels-Moore is quick to confirm that this is literal. "Ooh yes, bright colours. The colours of the set are very primary, very loud: bright blue and yellow, shocking red and green." He is not exaggerating: Ford's garden, for example, is decked out with lime green hills sprouting fast-growing trees, set against a sheer blue sky and royal purple ramparts of the castle. Michaels-Moore is slightly overwhelmed by the pure intensity of the colour. "I know what Graham's getting at. He's aiming at a renaissance-ish, burlesque pantomime and there's a sound justification for that. Murals in Italian churches are being cleaned up to reveal quite vivid colours, not muted or pale, and it's like that in these sets." The colour is contagious and spreads from the set to the costumes. Meg, Alice and Mistress Quickly form a traffic-light trio, dressed in red, amber and green. Falstaff goes off stage to "beautify" himself and returns in an outsize version of the Technicolor dreamcoat.
"The colours of the set are very primary, very loud"
The vaudeville stage is perfect for pantomime, with the characters as colourful as their costumes. "Graham [Vick] wants it played quite large. Reactions are big, almost on the point of caricature at times, without stepping too far." When Ford discovers Falstaff is visiting his wife between the hours of two and three, his jaw drops to the ground like a cartoon character. The reactions are enlarged further by the surprisingly sharp incline of the stage, which "means that the action is more in-your-face." This is especially true in the opening scene where Falstaff negotiates the intoxicating heights of the Garter Inn: one false move could send him hurtling into the lap of the front row. When the physical burlesque really gets going, the designer has been kind and the gradient flattens out. A crowd of extras join Ford in frantically searching for Falstaff, using the bed as a trampoline; "the acrobats and tumblers bring the burlesque and pantomime into it, a chaotic slapstick element". Falstaff, however, fares no better for the flat surface; crammed into a laundry basket to avoid the wrath of Ford, he is emptied into the river Thames with the rest of the dirty washing.
This kind of slapstick is drawn directly from Shakespeare, with the librettist Arrigo Boito sticking closely to the original story of The Merry Wives Of Windsor (with elements added from Henry IV and V). But Michaels-Moore points out that this is an Italian opera and not a Shakespeare play. "The wit and the colour comes from the clever use of language but also the sparkling orchestration." Antonio Pappano is in charge of the music, conducting his first Italian opera since starting as Covent Garden's music director this season. Verdi has dispensed with the lengthy individual arias in favour of chatty dialogue. "There are a lot of people singing at a lot of times. Verdi had a sense of humour. He's doing it deliberately to poke fun at the Italian operatic tradition - of which he was part - where all people are emoting on their own." There is no space for these pauses in such a busy plot: just as people talk over one another, Verdi's characters sing over each other. Ford's first steps onto the stage are met with a maelstrom of voices desperate to inform him of Falstaff's dishonourable intentions. Ford exclaims that he cannot understand a word. This complex interaction is promoted by director Graham Vick. "He demands that you listen, and respond to what other people are telling you on stage. It's very easy to acquire a smooth patina of response which means the artist isn't paying attention to what's going on around them. Graham's come to tighten everything up - make you listen, wait, watch. It's only through the interplay of the characters that the other characters are formed. If you start taking things away, or saying well that's less important, then you diminish the whole I think."
In the middle of all the confusion and burlesque, Michaels-Moore cuts a severe figure as Ford. "I've found that the stiller and more decisive that he's played in the first few scenes when there's all this pandemonium going on, it gives you somewhere further to go later on." When he finally deciphers the clamorous yet simple message - Falstaff is after his wife! - he does not dissolve in unchecked fury. Instead, he coolly calculates a plan to prove his wife's infidelity, involving paying Falstaff to sleep with her. Michaels-Moore has played Ford before at venues including the Bastille and the Paris Chatelet, and so is familiar with the role. He is, explains Michaels-Moore, a powerful merchant, a successful self-made man. He has aspirations to be regarded by society as more important than he is - "he's nouveau riche" - and he is truly terrified of being made to look a fool. "The danger for him is not on a personal level, but how he thinks society will react to him as a cuckolded husband: what will they say about me behind my back?" Ford's all-consuming fear blinds him to its absurdity, and Michaels-Moore is convinced that he should be played without humour. "I think it's important to play him very seriously. You have to stress the arrogance and keep that icy edge to it. The comedy comes out of playing him dead straight. If you keep the real threat and element of danger then he becomes even more comical."
"He's literally stripped bare - there's a little undergarment on top of his huge fat-suit to hide his modesty"
This icy edge works its chilly way into the rest of the otherwise convivial opera. In the third act, poor old Falstaff is subjected to a cruel humiliation. Boots still soggy from his unexpected dip in the Thames, he is understandably hesitant when entreated to meet Alice Ford in Windsor Park by moonlight. There, the other characters lie in wait disguised as nymphs and spirits, ready to scare the living daylights out of him. Gone is the vibrant colour of the first two acts; now all the costumes are white, against a darkened set complete with an eerie oak tree made up of people hanging at acute angles. The genial Falstaff has already revealed his vulnerability in his melancholic solo about being fat and old and grey, so this second 'punishment' is pretty merciless. Believing he is being attacked by spirits, he is blindfolded and then stripped naked with a noose placed around his neck. It is only when he recognizes his servant that the pretence is exposed. The characters all think it's terribly funny, but is the audience meant to share their mirth? "It's down to the individual response. He is ritually humiliated in this production in particular. He's literally stripped bare - there's a little undergarment on top of his huge fat-suit to hide his modesty. It is deliberately done to show how physically repulsive he is, and how stupid to believe that on a physical level women could find him attractive. You can argue whether that goes too far. But those are questions that Verdi asks and it's up to us to make our own decisions."
Leaving the difficult questions behind, Michaels-Moore's next stop is Brussels, where he is trying out "a rather rare Verdi opera called The Two Foscaris". His voice takes him round the world. "It's one of the perks of the job. My year tends to be made up of 6 or 8 week stays in Covent Garden, New York or San Fransico, or Paris or Vienna." For those at an office desk, with a slice of grey England filtering through the window, this lifestyle has its appeal. It does, says Michaels-Moore, have its downside. "It's a double-edged sword. It is very nice because, let's face it, there's some fantastic cities to go and visit - and they pay you. On the other hand, it does involve a sort of nomadic existence and it can be a bit tiring and lonely. But I'm not knocking it - if you want to have a good high profile international career you have to travel."
"You've got to be doubly as good as your Mediterranean rivals"
On his journey to international renown, Italy has proved an important stop. He mainly sings Verdi and as an Englishman it must hard to establish a reputation in Italian. "Oh, that's true. It is difficult. The biggest thing is the language. The Italians are so proud of their vocal tradition and they love to hear the language produced properly, so automatically you have a disadvantage as an English person. It's also rare for an English person to have that Italianate sound to the voice. In a sense you've got to be doubly as good as your Mediterranean rivals." Luckily, competition is fairly scarce: there are only about ten other singers performing similar roles (such as Ford in Falstaff or Iago in Otello) at the top theatres. He discovered his inclination for this role at university. "I liked the way the Italian baritone voice sounded, this lovely warm cello-ish with a slight bite to it. At the time, I didn't know I had that sort of instrument latent inside me. It's only gradually, over the last ten years in particular, that my voice has developed that deeper richer, weightier Italian sound to allow me to do that sort of role."
Having worked his way through most of the Verdi baritone roles, what's left? He is looking forward to Simon Boccanegra, which he has only performed in concert: "It looks as though I'll be doing that next year in fact in Santa Fe." Would he like to get his teeth into the ample character of Falstaff? "Possibly. It's something I'd look at later on, ten years down the line. It's not to do with the vocal ability of singing it, it's just I've got other roles that I enjoy singing more. I'm not ready for it yet." So after ten years and a strict diet of pints and pies, Michaels-Moore may be the man to fill the outsize boots of Falstaff.