By the time he was a teenager, he had developed a two-opera-a-week habit, which he was able to afford thanks to standing-room tickets that cost not much more than a trip to the movies. He studied classical singing for a while, too, but describes his baritone as having been “too shrimpy” to ever fill a role like Falstaff, based on one of Shakespeare’s most irresistible creations: the charismatic glutton who gets his comeuppance for trying to seduce not one but two married women.
“Falstaff” is Mr. Waltz’s second go at directing opera, after leading Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” here in 2013. For the company (formerly known as Flemish Opera) he’s part of a continuing effort to harness fresh talent from disciplines outside opera. Next up is a “Pelléas et Mélisande,” whose three directors include the performance artist Marina Abramovic.
“Der Rosenkavalier” drew some scathing reviews from German critics used to the shock-and-awe tactics of high-concept Regietheater. The Süddeutsche Zeitung called it a “crashing failure”; the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung lamented the “filigree and almost too delicate” acting, with gestures and glances “that can only be appreciated with a TV close-up or binoculars.”
Mr. Waltz maintains that the kind of nuanced and precise acting that he honed in the theater and on movie sets can be applied to opera. “Not that I want to revolutionize opera,” he said. “But if I can achieve specificity and precision in the acting — well, I wanted to see if that’s possible. ‘Rosenkavalier’ showed me, at least, that it wasn’t a bad idea to pursue that. I didn’t get there all the way, so this is my second shot.”
The American soprano Jacquelyn Wagner, who sings the role of Alice Ford, said that Mr. Waltz “asks you to be very clear about what you’re doing with your body — clear hand gestures and none of this thumbly-wumbly stuff. No emotions that don’t really mean anything.”
She added that the pared-down production, with a minimal set and costumes that blend 1950s fashions with Elizabethan touches, raised the stakes because it drew all the attention onto the characters. “Of course opera singers prefer a lovely set they can hide behind,” she said.
But Mr. Waltz insisted that it wasn’t his task to illustrate a story. “I don’t think that I am the right person to voluptuously and elaborately decorate,” he said. “I am more the person, with my personality and my interest, to strip away anything that is unnecessary.”
He looks first to the music. Mr. Waltz was recently working on a scene in which the conniving Mistress Quickly offers Falstaff a letter intended to lure him to a second rendezvous — in actuality, a trap — with the married Alice Ford. Verdi illustrates the character’s inner deliberation with several bars of orchestral music during which Falstaff, whose last date with Alice ended in humiliation, fails to take the bait. Finally, Falstaff snatches the letter out of Quickly’s hands. A musical accent hints at the moment of decision.