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Reviews

<em>Falstaff</em>, Garsington Opera
19 Jun 2018

Garsington Opera transfers Falstaff from Elizabeth pomp to Edwardian pompousness

Bruno Ravella’s new production of Verdi's Falstaff for Garsington Opera eschews Elizabethan pomp in favour of Edwardian pompousness, and in so doing places incipient, insurgent feminism and the eternal class consciousness of fin de siècle English polite society centre stage.

Falstaff, Garsington Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Yvonne Howard (Mistress Quickly) Henry Waddington (Falstaff) Victoria Simmonds (Meg)

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

Setting Verdi’s opera in the era of the suffragettes’ campaigning and Edward Elgar’s paean to ‘Englishness’ - the composer’s symphonic study Falstaff Op.68 was premiered in 1913 - neatly promotes pertinent ‘issues’ but also dilutes, a little, the immediate comic impact of the out-size peer of the realm, Sir John Falstaff.

Designer Giles Cadle has been eager, it seems, and unlike the opera’s eponymous protagonist, to stick within his budget. While Falstaff is pestered in his attic garret by a gothic, disembodied hand which thrusts an unpaid bill - for “Six chickens: six shillings. Thirty bottles of sherry: two pounds. Three turkeys ... Two pheasants. An anchovy ...” - through the floor boards, Cadle presents us with a cardboard cut-out set which allows us to take in a long and short perspective of Windsor’s castle and forest, and to enter some interior dwellings.

We begin in Sir John’s sparse abode above the Garter Inn. The pseudo-grand double-arch proscenium frame (a nod in the direction of William Tite’s multi-arched entrance to Windsor & Eton Riverside Railways Station, perhaps) and the sharp perspective retreat of the central raised, square platform seems to mock the pretentions of the Knight’s former glories, as embodied by the portrait of a slightly more svelte Falstaff in Hussar uniform which leans against the military hut from which the aging knight bursts with vitality and vulgarity.

Henry Waddington (Falstaff) Nicholas Crawley (Pistola) Adrian Thompson (Bardolfo) Ansh Shetty (Page) credit Clive Barda.jpg Henry Waddington (Falstaff) Nicholas Crawley (Pistola) Adrian Thompson (Bardolfo) Ansh Shetty (Page). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

This is a world in which feudalism has given way to the top hats sported by the worthy professionals of the nineteenth-century middle classes, such as Dr Caius, who is unceremoniously duped and turned on his head - literally, in the opening scene - and the bowler hats of the up-and-coming lower orders, such as Pistola and Bardolpho, who hedge their bets with regard to where their allegiances and labours are best bestowed. The only servant upon whom Falstaff can depend for loyalty is the young urchin who’s happy to share a tankard and to do his ‘aristocratic’ master’s bidding - and to dress up as a somewhat ‘benign’ Grim Reaper in the final scene.

Cadle utilises a rolling backdrop to set the scene. First, we have a vista which takes in the Thames (in which Falstaff will take an unanticipated dip, courtesy of the ladies whom he courts) and the castle of Windsor (loosely based on Turner’s Windsor Castle from the Thames c.1805). Next, we are whisked to Tite’s spacious railway concourse, the platforms of which retreat graciously and extensively under elegant arching ceilings.

Here, the female members of the Temperate Society gather, bearing banners - ‘Lips that have touched liquor shall not touch ours’ - while Suffragettes reminds us that only ‘Convicts, Lunatics and Women! Have No Vote for Parliament!’ The political activity does not seem to bother the inscrutable ticket officer ensconced in his tiny office; in fact, the dramatic focus seems to be on the charms of the steam locomotive that will chug and puff its way across the stage, raising a chuckle or two - and the only dramatic function of this locale seems to be that it provides a little Brief Encounter sentimentalism for the romantic embraces of Nannetta and Fenton.

Hollie-Anne Bangham (chorus) Victoria Simmonds (Meg) Yvonne Howard (Mistress Quickly) Soraya Mafi (Nannetta) Mary Dunleavy (Alice Ford).jpg Hollie-Anne Bangham (chorus) Victoria Simmonds (Meg) Yvonne Howard (Mistress Quickly) Soraya Mafi (Nannetta) Mary Dunleavy (Alice Ford). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

When Falstaff is duped into paying a call to Alice Ford, he finds himself amid Victorian flock wallpaper and screens, and faux foliage. The allusions to the detective fiction of the 19th century -the clumsy detonation of the screens by Ford and his accomplices, à la Holmes’ fictional foil, the police inspector Mr Athelney Jones - feel rather perfunctory, just as Falstaff’s secreting of his bulk in the laundry basket seems a bit laboured, especially as on this occasion he appeared to get ‘stuck‘ as he slides unceremoniously into the murk of the Thames. The result is laughs of the glibbest kind, such as those derived from the assault on Meg’s ‘innocence’ when the Knight, who has gleefully divested himself of his underwear when donning his tartan and sporran in anticipation of sexual high jinks, flashes his nether regions at a delighted/disconcerted Meg.

Cadle’s design reaches its apotheosis in the final Act: the menacing foliage which creeps in right and left threatens to swallow the evening forest tryst - à la Richard Dadd - and Falstaff himself is hoisted aloft, as a sort of Maypole exhibit, an image which is both cruel and comic.

Falstaff Act 3 Waddington and Chorus.jpgHenry Waddington (Falstaff) and GPO Chorus. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

But, set and design and aside, most of the enjoyment comes, as it should, from the singers and players. The Philharmonia Orchestra serve up tip-toeing instrumental delicacies and brash quasi-vulgarities with equal splendour, under the baton of Richard Farnes. If the coloristic orchestral onslaught is not always sensitive to the needs of the singers and there are moments when the vocal lines struggle to fight for space to be heard, then Farnes is ultra-alert to the ever-changing moods and tempi.

At the centre of the music-drama is Henry Waddington’s Falstaff: a figure who is wide of girth, proud and assured of his ‘entitlement’, but also surprisingly sensitive of spirit and judicious of vocal articulation of his self-worth. Falstaff’s ‘honour’ aria was eloquently delivered - how pleasing it was to have time to take in the words and their sentiment, particularly when they are so thoughtfully delivered with expressive nuance - and perceptively accompanied, and it made its mark. In contrast, the Knight’s lamentations about the sorry state of the world at the start of Act 3 did not quite have sufficient space within the accompanying instrumental medium to penetrate with sufficient pointedness. But, this was a Falstaff who wanted us to think, rather than guffaw, and that’s no bad thing.

Ford.jpgRichard Burkhard (Ford). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Richard Burkhard’s Ford was a compelling figure of rage and revenge, and his vendetta aria, ‘È sogno o realtà?’, conjured real threat and menace. I, for one, wouldn’t want to cross him. As his wife, Alice, Mary Dunleavy was a bright star, evincing smile-inducing guile and girlishness, complemented by intelligence and ingenuity - all conveyed with vocal assurance and plushness of sound.

Victoria Simmonds’ Meg Page was fittingly uptight, with an undercurrent of mischievousness; Soraya Mafi’s Nanetta and Oliver Johnson’s Fenton reminded us that there are real human emotions and lives at stake.

Garsington Opera 2018 Soraya Mafi (Nannetta).jpg Soraya Mafi (Nannetta). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

The only downside of this direct and compelling production was the unanticipated and unwelcome intrusion of the hedonist thumping and twanging of a nearby pop concert, carried by the brisk wind from outside the Wormsley estate to the opera pavilion, which, in particular, marred the magic of Soraya Mafi’s nocturnal serenade. Goodness knows what the Fat Knight would make of such a discourtesy.

Claire Seymour

Verdi: Falstaff

Sir John Falstaff - Henry Waddington, Alice Ford - Mary Dunleavy, Ford - Richard Burkhard, Meg Page - Victoria Simmonds, Mistress Quickly - Yvonne Howard, Nannetta - Soraya Mafi, Fenton - Oliver Johnston, Dr. Caius - Colin Judson, Bardolfo - Adrian Thompson, Pistola - Nicholas Crawley, Page (silent) - Ansh Shetty; Director - Bruno Ravella, Conductor - Richard Farnes, Designer - Giles Cadle, Lighting Designer - Malcolm Rippeth, Movement Director - Tim Claydon, Philharmonia Orchestra & Garsington Opera Chorus.

Garsington Opera Festival, Worsley; Saturday 16th June 2018.

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