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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Verdi Falstaff Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera, Coliseum, Thursday, 21st October, 2004 (CC)


We were to have heard Alan Opie in the title role of Verdi’s late masterpiece; due to virus-induced indisposition, though, it was Andrew Shore (apparently currently rehearsing Alberich for Siegfried) who did the honours. Shore is no stranger to Falstaff, having recorded the part for Chandos as part of their Opera in English. Certainly Shore seemed at home. This was not a huge, gross Falstaff of either girth or stage manner. Nothing was exaggerated, a comment that might equally apply to the staging (originally Matthew Warchus, this revival being by Ian Rutherford).


The staging only uses around 2/3 of the stage itself, but the Inn of the opening is traditional enough. The use of a stage within a stage immediately allows for a fairy-tale effect - a reaffirmation, perhaps, that this is a light divertissement we are about to see. Similarly, a gauze in front of the stage preceding the action gave precisely the same feeling. Lighting is perhaps surprisingly dark (putting me in mind a staging of the Merry Wives of Windsor I saw at the Old Vic a little while ago). Perhaps this ‘realism’was a stab at reflecting the grittiness of the translation (‘You toss-pot’, for example, exclaimed by Falstaff). Nothing on the recent Giovanni, be reassured, just an earthy touch to point us in the direction of Falstaff’s character.

 

 

Andrew Shore as Falstaff. Photograph: Bill Rafferty


Actually Shore had plenty of power. The orchestra certainly did not seem likely to pull its punches under Mark Wigglesworth’s direction, leading to a crackling undercurrent to the whole experience, right from the explosive beginning (although can anyone erase memories of the Gobbi/Karajan set, here or elsewhere)? Shore maintained the strength of his opening scene throughout, impressing particularly during his down-on-his-luck soliloquy in the final act.


Ashley Holland’s Ford took a while to warm in, but luckily he hit form in time for the Vengeance Aria at the end of the first part of Act II. This was eminently believable, even if there was still the impression that he almost, but not quite, had all the requisite power here. Bardolph and Pistol, great comic characters both, and played to the hilt here, were Alasdair Elliott and Graeme Danby respectively. Elliott’s Bardolph in particular was strong (both of voice and of characterisation).


But it was the females who were the stars of this show, whatever the strengths, combined or singular, of the gentlemen. Rebecca de Pont Davies has long been an ENO favourite, and her burnished lower range, her superb comic timing and her real stage presence all made this an unforgettable assumption of Mistress Quickly. More, in the scenes where she is in duet with Falstaff, the singers seemed to inspire each other to greater heights. There was more than a touch of the Joyce Grenfell about this Quickly, and very convincing it was, too. Of the Nanetta/Fenton partnership, it was the remarkably pert Gillian Keith who set hearts aflutter (not only Fenton’s, I’ll warrant). Bright, young and fresh, Keith’s voice is pure of tone and marvellously in tune. Her voice alone conveyed not only the youth and beauty of her character but also the spring-like joy of a young person in love, where all is right. In Act II she appeared as an oasis of purity in a world that, if not downright cruel, is certainly confusing. A pity that her Fenton, Colin Lee, was more of a good Am Dram singer than a true ENO member.

 

 

Photograph: Alastair Muir


Meg and Alice, of course, are vital. Jean Rigby was a rather tremulous Meg, although she seemed to gain a lot of strength in the final act; Susannah Glanville was a perfectly adequate Alice. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay the staging for Act III is that it did indeed conjure up Shakespeare - the intensely Shakespereian magic of, say Midsummer Night’s Dream. Silvery lighting, enchanting colours and elfin orchestral playing conspired to make a lasting impression.


It was all a great deal of fun. The translator, Amanda Holden, must have had great fun too (who wouldn’t, coming up with lines like - of Falstaff - ‘his appetite’s voracious for anything curvacious’). The thought that went into this production, from sets and translation to care in the orchestral balancing, was remarkable and it paid off in no uncertain terms. Wigglesworth seemed to find just the right tempo for every scene and it was not un-noted that the orchestra played considerably above their norm. In this of all operas they have to be on their toes, and hardly a foot was put wrong all night.

 

Colin Clarke

Picture Credits

 

Falstaff - Andrew Shore (Falstaff) - photographer Bill Rafferty.

 

Falstaff - Clockwise from Back Left - Rebecca de Pont Davies (Mistress
Quickly), Gillian Keith (Nannetta), Susannah Glanville (Mistress Alice
Ford), Jean Rigby (Mistress Meg Page) - photographer Alastair Muir.

 

Further Listening:


Gobbi, Karajan, EMI Great Recordings of the Century, CMS5 67 083-2
(In English, cond. Paul Daniel) Chandos Opera in English CHAN3079

 



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