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S&H Opera review

The best knight out in town

Verdi, Falstaff The Helikon Opera, Moscow, 16th May 2002 (NM)


Panto season’s come a bit late to Moscow this year – but when it’s a riotous rump-up like the Helikon’s Falstaff, you don’t really mind. In the "straight" theatre it’s a popular saw that getting laughs out of Shakespearean jokes is almost as easy as trying to get them out of Strindberg, but Dmitry Bertman doesn’t put a foot wrong in this crackling revival.

The Master of Ceremonies in the pit is the awesomely young Greek maestro Theodore Currentzis, whose super-physical style of conducting wasn’t to the aesthetic taste of some of the audience (I would imagine those seated immediately behind him in this notoriously tiny auditorium) - but if the means justify the ends, then Currentzis was justified in excelsis. He hits exactly the right mode, encouraging playing that’s sympathetic to a chamber-size venue, but a sweep and scope that would knock their socks off in Verona. Not a staccato-dot goes wasted in this punchy reading that blazes along like Toscanini in a six-litre sports car, although he could perhaps have been more generous with his cueing to the singers.

Bertman is able to jettison more Shakespearean baggage in Moscow than a London production might, and instead of the usual septuagenarian member of both weight-watchers and the Lonely Hearts Club, we get a Sir John in his mid-30s, a rippling physique and tennis-star hairstyle. Mikhail Davydov more than amply filled Sir John’s cuban-heel playboy boots, and although the voice has more golden youth to it than we’re used to in the role, it would be churlish to complain that he was too good.

The usual in-house design team of Igor Nezhny and Tatiana Tulubieva come-up with a truly dazzling set, half-framed in skewiff picture-frames. The Garter Inn is a giant plate, complete with a giant fish-bone and 12-foot knives and forks, and an immense Tardis-like tankard which forms a revolving door. Bardolph & Pistol are done-up as a pair of Circus Strong-Men in stripey suits, Vladimir Bolotin and Dmitry Kalin made a zany Abbott & Costello double-act of the disreputable pair. More laughs followed from Mikhail Seryshev playing Dr Caius as Max Wall, with one leg and one arm in very real-looking plaster-casts.

Andzhei Veletsky makes a refreshing Ford, and superbly-sung too. Instead of the furled-brow agonizing and mugging, this Ford is more potty than Caractacus Potts as a vintage car enthusiast… well, in Russia they can’t resist a gag like having him arrive in a Ford, albeit an auto-backfiring clown-car Ford. But as usual in Bertman productions, everything’s there for a purpose, and you can understand Alice Ford’s frustrations being in a threesome relationship with a man who loves his jalopy more than his wife. The costumes here work exceptionally well, with Ford kitted-out in a "Mr Toad" style coachman’s hat, and ruff-necked leather car-coat. When he finds Falstaff’s been thrown in the river (in his precious car!), Veletsky does a bravura head-first leap into the toilet-bowl of the privy in his frustration, and is rooted there for the blackout that ends the act.

Outstanding amongst the women is Larissa Kostiuk as Mistress Quickly, with a "po-vera donna!" that grew more and more obscene, and a neckline that dropped lower and lower, as the evening wore on, with the arch scheming of a real old busybody. Tatiana Kuinji sang a super Nanetta who’s as batty as a fruitcake, in a shocking-pink wig straight from Absolutely Fabulous. If Nanetta is Cinders, then Alice and Meg are the Two Ugly Sisters, and Alisa Gibtsa and Svetlana Rossiyskaya (respectively) had tremendous fun with the duplicate love-letters and rival suits. Nikolai Dorozhkin looked somewhat ill at ease as an Arlechino-type Fenton, but delivered the vocal goods as reliably as ever in his Forest Aria (during which he caught some fish and a luminous codpiece from out of the woodwind section of the pit – gamekeepers are apparently seeking a clarinetist accomplice). Having just seen the Bolshoi’s Swan Lake two nights earlier, the super satire of having the female chorus at the Oak Of Herne dance a pastiche of the Swan Ballet (and extremely well, for opera-singers!) was especially rib-tickling amusement – a visual gag made even funnier by the fact that they really could dance it.

It’s laugh-a-minute stuff and the pace doesn’t falter, save for some moments of real musical magic at the Great Oak. If this is what the Helikon can do when crammed onto a stage barely big enough for string quartet recitals, god alone knows what they’re capable of in a real theatre? Please won’t someone find them a proper venue? No one could possibly deserve it more.

Neil McGowan


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