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Reviews

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09 Jul 2018

A spritely summer revival of Falstaff at the ROH

Robert Carson’s 2012 ROH Falstaff is a bit of a hotchpotch, but delightful nevertheless. The panelled oak, exuding Elizabethan ambience, of the first Act’s gravy-stained country club reeks of the Wodehouse-ian 1930s, but has also has to serve as the final Act’s grubby stable and the Forest of Windsor, while the central Act is firmly situated in the domestic perfection of Alice Ford’s 1950s kitchen.

Falstaff, Royal Opera House

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Bryn Terfel (Falstaff)

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

 

Chronological and geographical side-steps aside, the production is funny, frivolous and thoughtful in equal measure and just what was needed at the end of a long, hot summer week. (For further comment on the design and staging see my 2015 review of the first revival.)

The theatrical and vocal joy was supplied by a terrific cast. While at Garsington a few weeks ago, the women bonded over their suffragette placards and politics, here the ladies-who-lunch exuded a real sense of mischievous camaraderie and feminist nous.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly.jpg Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux was a scream as Mistress Quickly, and if she was larger-than-life and milked the camp for all it was worth, it didn’t matter when she was a walking exclamation mark with every entrance and exit - a kick of the heel, a flash of leg, a sashaying curtsey or flamboyant spin - and equally rich and resplendent of voice. Marie McLaughlin’s Meg Page was assured and poised, and if Ana María Martínez sometimes couldn’t match her female ‘accomplices’ for plushness, then she acted superbly, and her phrasing was as poised as her posturing before the gullible Falstaff.

Frédéric Antoun as Fenton, Anna Prohaska as Nannetta.jpg Frédéric Antoun as Fenton, Anna Prohaska as Nannetta. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Anna Prohaska’s Nannetta was a dew-drop of guileless charm and genuine love, a real breath of fresh air; she floated her first top Ab with stunning purity - it punched right to the heart - and if the second was less pointed, well, she was on her knees, crawling backwards under a table for an assignation with her beloved Fenton. Prohaska and Frédérick Antoun’s Fenton shone through the seedy, soullessness of some of the romantic liaisons with an honest, innocent affection that was truly touching. Fenton can sometimes seem a bit spineless but Antoun’s Act 3 aria granted him vocal and dramatic stature.

As a shiny-suited Ford, Simon Keenlyside was a powerfully bitter presence amid the sugary self-indulgence. Surely his disguise, as Brook, would have fooled no one, the lavish ease of his rock-star locks and flamboyant shirt overshadowed by a rage aria which was frighteningly vicious, but which could have done with a bit more punch in the lower register.

Simon Keenlyside as Ford.jpg Simon Keenlyside as Ford. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

But, this opera rests or falls on the stomach and heart of its eponymous Fat Knight. And, what a wonderful singing actor Bryn Terfel is. Perhaps there were a few rough edges at times - Act 3 didn’t quite make its sentimental mark, though he blossomed authoritatively in Act 1’s honour aria - but he can do belligerency, bravado and belly-laughs with equal panache, and despite all Falstaff’s boasting and bluffing there was still that telling touch of sincerity to win the audience’s sympathetic smile and sigh.

Though first espied loafing indifferently behind a newspaper in his outsized bed at the Garter ‘Inn’, as agitated waiters wafted unpaid bills, or imbibing indulgently in a grimy onesie - six boiled eggs for breakfast with coffee and cognac, all on the tick - this Falstaff could miraculously transform himself, instantaneously resurrecting that memory of the former slim Duke of Norfolk, to take his place amid the privileged and entitled, and irritate the bespectacled gents in the hotel Reading Room.

Sir John Falstaff.jpg Bryn Terfel as Sir John Falstaff. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

When visited by Mistress Quickly bearing an invitation to visit Alice, Terfel became the epitome of studied suavity à la P.G. Wodehouse. Terfel can twinkle his eyes, twaddle his cane and twiddle his top hat with stomach-tickling ease. Regaled in scarlet hunting regalia he was champing at the bit. In Act 2 he seemed to know how to place himself in the exactly the right place at just the wrong time, as the drama demands, commandeering his sexual territory atop of the formica kitchen units of Alice’s ‘perfect’ buttercup-hued kitchen, diving in the nick of time into a cupboard with the arrival of Ford, swinging - with some effort - his booted legs into the laundry basket as the jealous husband turned house and home upside down. Perhaps Terfel was upstaged by the munching horse at the start of Act 3, and, despite rolling athletically along the dining table, a delicacy at the cruel feast, couldn’t quite find his niche in an Act which in this production rather loses its way, but at the close he grasped the opportunity to quash his opponents with a quip, a flourish and winning flair.

Given the intemperate ego at the centre of the show, conductor Nicola Luisotti was a bit too restrained and the score might have zipped along with rather more spice. But, this revival is a sparkling summer spritzer.

Claire Seymour

Sir John Falstaff - Bryn Terfel, Alice Ford - Ana María Martínez, Ford - Simon Keenlyside, Nannetta - Anna Prohaska, Fenton - Frédéric Antoun, Mistress Quickly - Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Meg Page - Marie McLaughlin, Dr Caius - Carlo Bosi, Bardolph - Michael Colvin, Pistol - Craig Colclough; Director - Robert Carsen, Conductor - Nicola Luisotti, Set designer - Paul Steinberg, Costume designer - Brigitte Reiffenstuel, Lighting designers - Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet, Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Saturday 7th July 2018.

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