Director Annilese Miskimmon certainly aimed for unclouded comedy and ceaseless zest in an uproarious production of Falstaff at Opera Holland Park, which nevertheless did not always avoid hyperbole or kitsch.
During a pacy Prelude, designer Nicky Shaw’s simple wooden huts spun deftly to reveal a mock-Tudor interior: not a bawdy tavern but a 1920s care home for the war-wounded. Invalids in striped pyjamas staggered about on crutches and were whizzed in wheelchairs by efficient nurses, while a medal-bestrewn Sir John held court centre-stage, throwing his weight around - quite literally - and verbally abusing the long-suffering Pistol and Bardolf (Simon Wilding and Brian Galliford respectively).
I may be being overly fastidious, but given the significant casualties resulting from recent overseas conflicts, I for one didn’t find hobbling amputees and wheelchair capers particularly amusing; and, in any case, once is enough - a gag repeated is a gag diluted. However, having introduced this particular ‘angle’, director Annilese Miskimmon somewhat inexplicably did not choose to pursue it further. By Scene 2 the convalescence period was over and we were transported to a 1950s village fete, all jubilee bunting, jelly mounds and Victoria sponges. It was more Albert Herring than Elizabethan escapade: church spire, cricket whites, boy scouts, surplices, plodding policeman
just about every stereotype was represented. Even Ford found himself cast as the village rector with his own clerical chorus.
The hurly-burly of Act 2 Scene 2 - when a preening, cock-sure Falstaff arrives for his assignation with Alice - took place in a floral bedroom typical of a 1950s farce, with the requisite hiding nooks, fresh-faced lovers, duplicitous housewives, indignant husbands and a shameless old lecher. The action was lightning quick, with some delightfully detailed direction: from Falstaff’s ungainly arrival, head-first via the window, the busy exits and entrances were neatly handled.
But then, in Act 3, as the plot hatched by the women unfolds, we were whisked off again, now to the glades of Windsor Forest. Mark Jonathan’s atmospheric lighting cast an eerie translucent glow, as cricket whites were swapped for faery fineries. It was almost back to Britten-land again, as the fantasy of sham spirits evoked the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, before we returned to a world of maypoles and flags - just about everyone seemed to get tied up in knots of red, white and blue at some point - for the final scene, which, after the preceding comic exuberances seemed rather static. During the final fugue the chorus, bundled in bunting by Falstaff, seemed unsure of what they should be doing and, occasionally, singing, and the zip rather went out of things.
Despite the lack of clarity and consistency in Miskimmon’s direction, there was much to admire and many moments of comic hilarity. She was aided by a uniformly strong cast, led by Olafur Sigurdarson - an OHP veteran, who having previously taken the title roles in Rigoletto and Macbeth now turned his hand from tragedy to buffo. Sigurdarson was the physical and vocal epicentre of this performance; his full-blooded bellow suggested the immensity of Falstaff’s pomposity and self-importance, and also the warm generosity underlying the bluff blustering. Although he lost the pitch at times, particularly in the opening scene, this was a fully committed, rumbustious performance; vocally and physical agile, his exploits included hanging like a sail from the four-poster, and even a carefree cartwheel of glee of some accomplishment!
Such exuberance, and Sigurdarson’s strong musical presence, enlivened the whole production, often to very amusing effect. But, one can have too much of a good thing. Miskimmon did not acknowledge the more serious undercurrents of the opera, and the unalleviated merriment, mayhem and madness became a little wearing. For, in forging his libretto Boito assimilated material from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and from Henry IV: his Falstaff is not simply the coarse clown of the former, but retains some of the qualities of the Falstaff of the history play. Here there was little sense of Falstaff’s ‘stateliness’, his sense of his own social superiority and entitlement - he is a ‘Sir’ after all - and thus no recognition of his tragic decline.
Still, there were some fine musical performances, not least from Carole Wilson, a knowing Mistress Quickly, whose rich, rounded voice conveyed the pragmatist’s years of wisdom and experience (but, why was she dressed as a nun during conversations with Falstaff?).
Linda Richardson was a lively Alice, proving herself a strong character actress. At times, a delightfully suggestive blossoming of the voice made it clear that this Mrs Ford would not be averse to an amorous adventure or two. Carolyn Dobbin was similarly focused and strong as Meg. Although the opening scenes were a little unsettled, perhaps not to be unexpected on an opening night, by the unaccompanied quartet of Act 1 Scene 2 the complicated ensemble writing was crystal clear.
As Ford, George van Bergen, despite projecting a firm, focused musical line, struggled to stamp his presence on the role; his famous monologue to Jealousy was accurate but lacked menace, his voice insufficiently fierce. Ford’s duet with Falstaff in Act 2 Scene 1 - some of the finest music of the opera - was well sung, but the final simultaneous exit of the two men through the door again lacked the necessary tension.
Benjamin Hulett, looking like an overgrown schoolboy in his knee-length shorts and striped cap, was a superb Fenton. He has just the right ardent ‘ping’ to suggest over-enthusiastic youthful passion, and his yearning solo and subsequent duet with Rhona McKail (Nanetta) were among the highlights of the evening; the pathos of old man in his final years writing such tender, innocent music is truly affecting. As the evening progressed McKail overcame an initial tendency to sing sharp, and revealed a beautifully pure and touching tone.
Peter Robinson, conducting the City of London Sinfonia, brought out the Beethovian qualities of the score, particularly its tapestry of motifs. Textures were crisp and clear, from the woodwind trills during Sir John’s monologue on Honour to the staccato brass in the old rogue’s soliloquy of self-satisfaction, “Va vecchio John”, which built to an exultant conclusion. Verdian ‘labels’ such as Mistress Quickly’s curtsey were effectively shaped; there was some joyful woodwind playing in Act 1 Scene 2, accompanying the mischievous mirth of the Merry Wives and some fleet string spiccatos at start of bedroom scene. The small forces often garnered a surprisingly full tone, but while precise and attentive to detail, the rather restrained overall approach was a little at odds with the unruly larks onstage.
Whatever my misgivings, the audience were clearly entertained and highly appreciative, giving Sigurdarson in particular a roaring ovation. But, despite the fun and frolics - and the strong individual performances - the parts did not really add up to a coherent, or sufficiently nuanced, whole. This production is certainly a jolly jape but does not really present the insights into human nature that Verdi, and Shakespeare, offer: that all men and women, regardless of status or wisdom, may be foolish even ridiculous, but they are still deserving of both love and pity.