22 May 2013

Verdi’s Falstaff at Glyndebourne

Richard Jones’ 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff translates the action from the first Elizabethan age to the start of the second.

In Ultz’s recreation of post-war Windsor — a fitting setting for a year in which we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation — suburban mock-Tudor has replaced the genuine article but it’s a familiar world populated, much as in the historic past, by down-on-their-luck aristocrats and aspiring social climbers. There are nods forwards as well as backwards: the regimented cabbage plots amid the middle-class semis call to mind that prior ‘age of austerity’, when the ‘Dig For Victory’ mentality was as common as ‘Grow Your Own’ economising is today.

We begin in a rather genteel, wood-panelled local saloon bar, The Garter Inn; a portrait of George VI and an extravagantly antlered stag’s head oversee proceedings — a reminder of the class tensions and cuckoldry which will disturb the bourgeois complacency. Centre-stage sprawls Falstaff, ardently typing amorous missives, audaciously and insouciantly adding to his alcohol tab, and flamboyantly issuing commands to his senseless sidekicks, Bardolfo and Pistola.

Laurent Naouri’s Sir John is imposingly wide of girth — thanks to an impressive fat-suit — and generously resounding of voice. His authoritative bellow vanquishes complaints from his snivelling underlings; with beguiling tone, he serenades and courts the ladies. There is no doubting his haughty bumptiousness and Naouri emphasises his essential aristocratic dignity. But, at times this Falstaff is overly curmudgeonly, aggrieved that others do not recognise his ‘nobility’ — an anachronistic note in 1950s England — and his irritability and crabbiness do not endear him. Naouri is light on his feet, despite the prodigious abdominal encumbrance, and can neatly execute a dainty flounce. But, while the voice is sweet and enticing, this Falstaff lacks a certain wicked sparkle in the eye and the debonair charm that might win a feminine heart regardless of his physical decrepitude. Falstaff should be both dignified and vulgar, both arrogant and aware of his own coarseness and comic crassness — he should laugh at himself, so that we can laugh with him.

Part of the problem is Jones’ uncharacteristic lack of attention to comic detail and gesture; there are a few neat touches — the faux leave-taking courtesies of Ford and Falstaff, the obsequious pleading for forgiveness of the perfidious Bardolfo and Pistola, the tidal wave which bursts through the Fords’ front window when Falstaff tumbles from the window ledge and belly-flops into the Thames — but most of the audience laughter was prompted by the surtitles rather than the stage action itself (excepting the feline wriggles of the furry puppet adorning the Garter’s bar-top). The lengthy pauses between scenes, necessitated by some hefty scene-shifting, further diminished the comic briskness. The sets themselves are neat and credible, and troupes of rowing eights and girl guides add to the period feel — although they have little relevance to the drama itself. Three such scouts cross-stitch the local panorama across the front cloth before curtain-up, but it’s stretching things somewhat to ask us to imagine that they have won their needlepoint brownie badges creating a tapestry screen of Windsor Castle to adorn Alice Ford’s morning room. The latter is rather sparsely decorated, leaving few opportunities for chaotic concealment in what should be a farcical man-hunt for the lascivious Falstaff during his lecherous assignation in Act 2.

falstaff-4680.gifElena Tsallagova, Ailyn Perez, Susanne Resmark and Lucia Cirillo

The huge oak in the final scene is impressively anthropomorphic and, swathed in unnatural colours by lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin, casts eerie, dancing shadows. But, the scene is poorly choreographed, the stage overly cluttered, and the ghoulish, lurid Halloween costumes — bought, presumably, at the high-street Joke Shop depicted in the previous scene — sported by the boy scouts and brownies are at odds with the Shakespearean mood of enchantment and magic. More ‘trick or treat’ than Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Ultimately, these flaws in the staging do not overly trouble us, for there is not a single weak link in the cast. Making her Glyndebourne debut, American soprano Ailyn Pérez was a self-possessed and spirited Alice Ford. Never histrionic but always secure in her self-belief, Pérez’ golden voice soared lyrically; at times slyly coy, she commanded the stage with ease. Susanne Resmark as Mistress Quickly, purposefully attired in an Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform, demonstrated masterly comic timing, particularly in her scenes with Falstaff — tongue-firmly-in-cheek, she relished the ironic resonances of the mocking salutation, ‘with respect’.

Russian baritone Roman Burdenko was a proud, indignant Ford; Falstaff may be the one with the title, but Burdenko’s powerful yet elegant delivery left no doubt about his own sense of entitlement. In this production, Fenton is a GI, and the Italian tenor, Antonio Poli exuded freshness and optimism, although he was surpassed in graceful airiness by Elena Tsallagova as Nanetta, whose angelic faerie supplication in Act 3 was the musical highlight of the evening. Lucia Cirillo was a fiery Meg; Graham Clark as Dr Caius, and Colin Judson and Paolo Battaglia — Bardolfo and Pistola respectively — completed the fine line-up.

Conducting much of the score from memory, Mark Elder led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a crisp but warm account, alert to every detail and unfailingly conjuring deft musical humour even when the stage action was less buoyant. The sombre, slightly melancholic tone of the natural horns coupled with the darker gut string timbre, made for an unusual but convincing musical colour. There was much fine playing and the instrumentalists fully captured the conviviality and essential geniality of the work; they richly deserved their ovation.

Claire Seymour

Click here for a podcast relating to this production.

Cast and production information:

Falstaff: Laurent Naouri; Alice Ford: Ailyn Pérez; Ford: Roman Burdenko; Meg Page: Lucia Cirillo; Mistress Quickly: Susanne Resmark; Nannetta: Elena Tsallagova; Fenton: Antonio Poli; Dr Cajus: Graham Clark; Bardolfo: Colin Judson; Pistola: Paolo Battaglia; Conductor Mark Elder; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; The Glyndebourne Chorus; Director Richard Jones; Revival Director Sarah Fahie; Designer Ultz; Lighting Designer Mimi Jordan Sherin. Glyndebourne Festival, Sunday, 19th May 2013.