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Seen and Heard Opera Review
Vaughan Williams: Sir John in Love. Soloists, orchestra and chorus of English National Opera,Oleg Caetani. Coliseum 4.3.2006 (BK)
Sir John Falstaff: Andrew Shore
Ford: Alastair Miles
Mistress Ford: Jean Rigby
Page: Russell Smythe
Mistress Page: Marie McLaughlin
Anne Page: Sarah Fox
Sir Hugh Evans: Iain Paterson
Dr.Caius: Robert Tear
Rugby: Mark Richardson
Shallow: Stuart Kale
Slender: Christopher Gillett
Peter Simple: Richard Coxon
Nym: Paul Napier-Brown
Pistol: Graeme Danby
Host of the Garter Inn: Nicholas Folwell
Robin (Falstaff's Page) : Phillip Agnew
Conductor: Oleg Caetani
Just why is folk music so undervalued in England? If we were Nordic or Czech, Hungarian or French - or almost any other nationality, come to think of it - we would celebrate the folk influences in our 'serious' music and be grateful for their legacy. Not us English though - Oh, goodness no, dear. We ignore a Vaughan Williams opera for 48 years - except for two recordings, one of which dates from 1975.
Hats off then, to Chandos and Richard Hickox in 2002 and now to ENO for this sparkling new production. Yes, it does have 'Greensleeves' in it (with the royalties going to Royalty, as Michael Flanders used to say) and of course it's not Verdi or Nicolai: instead it's our own - our very own - RVW at his most romantic and lyrical. And with only 15 minutes of folk music, as it happens.
'Sir John' is often criticised for its busy first Act, in which almost all the characters are introduced; packed in tightly and confusing for the audience. And the music takes time to get going, people say, and only perks up some while later. Well, maybe: despite using texts from Shakespeare, Middleton, Marlowe, Jonson and others, RVW wasn't the greatest librettist and the character cramming is an error. But the action is easily followed thanks to ENO's new surtitles and some Act I music is ravishing, especially for Anne Page and Fenton.
The sets are simple and the production is staged in Edwardian England, complete with costumes to match. Below a green hill backdrop crowned by Windsor Castle, the wooden frames of two mock-tudor houses turn variously into the Pages' home, the Garter Inn, the Fords' house and so on, throughout the whole action until the Windsor Forest scene. There, an equally simple cut-out provides us with Herne's Oak which is set off magically by attractive lighting.
Ian Judge's direction is pacy and assured. This Falstaff is roguish yet dignified by turns - he drinks his pints in one swallow but is certainly 'in love.' Anne Page and Fenton are properly besotted and the Merry Wives are feisty and witty. Top all of this off with carefully gauged silliness from Caius and Slender (Anne's other would-be suitors) and the charm of the production is obvious: it is steeped in good-humour through and through.
Taken as a whole, the score is delightful and Oleg Caetani's relaxed but authoritative conducting made it subtle and exhilirating. Not a phrase of the lyricism was neglected, the orchestral playing was immaculate and as a new role debut for the conductor this could hardly have been bettered. The entire cast and the chorus were with him all the way and as well as Andrew Shore's expected sterling performance (impeccable diction, timing and beautiful sound) the other ENO stalwarts were in excellent form too. Fine playing, splendid singing and assured direction made this good-hearted English opera an evening of pure pleasure. On a DVD, it would sell lots.
© ENO and Clive Barda 2006
Pictures © ENO and Clive Barda 2006