I have seen Falstaff more times than I care to remember with various singers in that so famous title role yet few productions have held a candle to this Grange Festival creation for enjoyment – which is surely what a Verdi comedy is all about? Add two Welsh sopranos on tip-top form and what more could we want on a summer’s afternoon?
Yes, it was beautiful sung by a lovely ensemble with Robert Hayward in the title role as the self-deluded old soak living off scams and thinking he is a real catch as he tries to seduce the ladies and in this production updated to Windsor in the golf club, regatta, health spa modern world. But with a witty translation and plenty of updated references, this was actually funny. This generously voiced but not by nature Falstaff is now a ridiculous old bohemian but who can scrub up well in his regatta outfit.
Conducted with wonderful aplomb by Francesco Cilluffo, this Christopher Luscombe’s production lit by Peter Mumford and designed by Simon Higlett, has Sir John Falstaff with his crooked mates/ hanger ons Bardolfo (Christopher Gillett) and Pistola (Pietro di Bianco) at the perfectly created blandly modern Garter Inn on the banks of the Thames. Tourists read guides to Windsor in the background and grab selfies with the larger man (although they do not seem to share every other character’s sense of ridicule).
Switch over (or rotate to be more accurate) to the terrace of Alice Ford’s modern house (was it supposed to look like the ugly pile built for the Yorks?) and then inside for the modern kitchen (a new washing machine has just been installed so there is a good pile of dirty laundry to fill the laundry basket) and a pull out larder cupboard where the lovers can hide. The last action is played out at a cut down stump of Herne’s Oak (an environmental comment maybe).
Robert Hayward and Nicholas Lester
Other little details range from one of the Merry Wives reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Falstaff wheeling in a shopping trolley full of plastic waste that he had dragged out of the Thames with him, the locals gathering in Windsor Great Park using their mobiles (like in a Pokemon gathering), a reduced sticker on the supermarket flowers he brings Alice and an old scarf wearing lady scampering across the park drag along by an enthusiastic corgi.
The singing was of a standard that, enhanced by being in this small space where the seating and stage are erected within the old orangery of a Greek Revival stately home, this is indeed a high quality opera performance in an intimate and personal environment. Hayward proves to be a rich and warm bass-baritone comfortable with both the pomposity and also fallibility of Verdi’s creation. Elin Pritchard’s clear and vivid soprano as Alice Ford leads this cohort of modern feisty women, an instantly likeable lithe-voiced Meg from Angela Simkin, a deeply satisfying mezzo from Susan Bickley’ comically perfect Mistress Quickly and a not-so-helpless young thing Nanetta, beautifully sung by Rhian Lois, luxurious phrasing and with impressive pianissimo. There are no great love arias in Falstaff but the pretty duets between Lois and a lovable boyish rather than dashing lyric tenor Alessandro Fisher as Fenton, were enchanting .
Well-known to Mid Wales Opera audiences, Nicholas Lester was a convincing and less ridiculous than usual Ford, sure of voice and acting and Graham Clark sang a forthright, rather nasty Dr Caius. These men may be the butt of much of the humour in this high-speed romp but these chaps vocally and dramatically hold their own.
There was no scrimping with Verdi’s complex score from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra , rather it bristles with elegance and enthusiasm, working with the singers on the glorious ensembles with utter delight.
Main images : Front: Elin Pritchard and Rhian Lois, Rear: Angela Simpkin and Susan Bickley
Images Cliva Barda
Further performances: June 21, 29