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Verdi, Falstaff :  Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Carlo Rizzi, conductor, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 3.3.2008 (GPu)

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi
Director: Peter Stein
Designer: Lucio Fanti
Costume Designer: Moidele Bickel
Lighting Designer: Robert Bryan
Choreographer: Caroline Lamb
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris


Sir John Falstaff: Bryn Terfel
Dr. Caius : Anthony Mee
Bardolph: Neil Jenkins
Pistol: Julian Close
Alice Ford: Janice Watson
Nannetta: Claire Ormshaw
Meg Page: Imelda Drumm
Mistress Quickly: Anne-Marie Owens
Ford: Christopher Purves
Fenton, Rhys Meirion
Oste (Innkeeper): Paul Gyton
Robin (Falstaff’s Page) Isaac Marks

Sir John Falstaff: Bryn Terfel

Writing in 1850 Verdi declared that “he had it in mind to set to music The Tempest and all the principal plays of the great tragedian”. If that always impossible dream had ever been realised we would surely have had (if Otello and Falstaff are a fair guide) just about the greatest series of works of music-theatre that one could imagine. With one important proviso: Verdi would have had to be working with Arrigo Boito or (and this too is well nigh impossible) another librettist with as astute an understanding of both Shakespeare and Verdi and with as sure a sense of both theatre and opera.

To see and hear this production was be reminded, once again, of just how superlative a piece of work Falstaff is. As a piece for the theatre it seems to me considerably better than Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor – by no means one of his best plays. I notice that in an interview included in the programme, Simon Rees begins by asking Peter Stein “Is Boito’s libretto for Falstaff a better play than Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor?” Stein’s rather lengthy – and very interesting – reply avoids an unambiguous answer. Asked the same question I would say, unhesitatingly, “Yes!”. This, surely, is one of the great operatic libretti; lyrical when it needs to be, utterly judicious (and properly ruthless) in its omissions and in its ‘borrowings’ from the Henry IV plays and Henry V, which produce a Falstaff far more interesting than Shakespeare’s rather psychologically shrivelled figure in Merry Wives; it is a text full of inventive wit and wordplay and, above all, perfectly calculated for musical setting by Verdi. Given the superb acoustics of the Millennium Centre, the excellent diction of this cast and the sympathetically judged orchestral accompaniment provided by the Orchestra of the WNO and Carlo Rizzi, never threatening to overwhelm singers but always effective in its support and pointed in its comments, it was possible to savour to the full the beauty and the clarity of purpose which characterises Boito’s libretto – and to relish the supreme subtlety with which Verdi sets it.

L-R Meg Page: Imelda Drumm, Alice Ford: Janice Watson,
Nannetta: Claire Ormshaw and Mistress Quickly: Anne-Marie Owens

How pleasant and refreshing to see and hear the superbly integrated music and words in a production which, without ever being merely reverential, genuinely respected the qualities and spirit of this great opera. Utterly devoid of distracting gimmicks, full of beautifully composed stage pictures (not least the closing one of Falstaff’s air-borne apotheosis), abounding in tiny details of stage positioning, gesture and action, the production served, clarified and celebrated the music (and words) with high intelligence, without ever becoming in the least self-congratulatingly or self-consciously clever. There were no caricatures here, no ‘cartoons’; rather there were plausible social and personal relationships and – within the conventions of the comic tradition – believable human beings. In its avoidance of easy gestures, this was a production which approached the subtlety of the Shakespeare-Boito-Verdi achievement itself.

Costumes and set were a delight. I have only rather imprecise memories of seeing the first Welsh incarnation of this production back in 1988 (with Donald Maxwell as Falstaff). I remember it as rather darker and more claustrophobic than it is now – but that may perhaps be largely due to my having seen it on a much smaller stage. On the large stage of the Millennium Centre, with the unextravagant colours of Lucio Fanti’s set complemented by the well-judged and subtle shades of Robert Bryan’s lighting, there is a degree of Italianate radiance and (where appropriate) a sense of space, that I don’t remember being so striking first-time round.

Nannetta: Claire Ormshaw

Above all one had the sense throughout that this was a production whose producer had really listened to the music; that ought, of course, to be something that one might expect to be able to say about every opera production but, sadly, it isn’t. Stein’s whole style of production matches the extraordinary continuity of Verdi’s music with a staging of similar fluidity, so that at virtually every point one feels a real sense of the interdependence and integration of music/text and visual/stage image, the sense that musical phrase and dramatic situation are mutually productive of one another. When there are passages approaching the status of conventionally operatic set-pieces – such as the women’s E major quartet in Act I, Falstaff’s ‘Quand’ero paggio’, Ford’s ‘È sogno? O realtà’, or the astonishing closing fugue – Stein responds with groupings and/or patterns of movement and gesture which articulate the patterns of the music without being crudely mimetic. The final fugue was a particular joy, in which the musical entries of Verdi’s fugal subjects and their interplay were embodied in physical movements, advances and retreats, dance-like regularities of grouping, which gave visual expression to the music’s structure.

As has often been said, Falstaff is, in many ways, essentially an ensemble work; as Julian Budden puts it, “it is not a singers’ opera but one of ensemble, of give and take between instruments and voices … If Falstaff finds little favour amongst the groundlings, it has scarcely more appeal for the star singer”. And yet it remains true, too, that Falstaff is at the centre of everything here, the presence which gives meaning and impetus to everything that happens, the essential ‘ground’, as it were. As Falstaff himself asserts as he recovers his composure in Act III, “Son’io che vi f scaltri. / L’arguzia mia crea l’arguzia degli altri”. A production, to a degree, stands or falls by the quality of its Falstaff, for all the work of producers, designers and, indeed, orchestra and other singers. Bryn Terfel invested the role (and the stomach) with  a commanding presence, a seedy, resilient energy, a residual wit whose spark seemed sometimes in danger of getting quite lost in the surrounding flesh, a fascination with his own bulk, a confident self-celebration that could be overcome only briefly. The gradations of tone and dynamic that Terfel brought to the role, the sheer certainty of voice and presence, made him an utterly secure foundation for everything else that went on around him. He caught very well the shifting balance between vitality and decay, between the sympathetic and the absurd, the poignant and the deservedly humbled, the energetic and the exhausted. In an opera – and a production – characterised by its subtlety and its avoidance of the grand gesture (to quote Budden again, this is an opera in which “the grand vocal gesture occurs only by way of parody”), there were many dimensions of Terfel’s voice which were not called on. But what we did hear was largely impressive, especially at top and bottom of his range.

Around Terfel’s Falstaff WNO had assembled a very decent cast, with virtually no weak links, musically speaking. Janice Watson was an authoritative and sure-toned Alice Ford; Claire Ormshaw was an attractively sparky Nannetta with some beautifully pure high notes; I have heard Anne-Marie Owens in slightly better voice than she was here as Mistress Quickly, but one or two seeming constrictions in the voice were compensated for by the vivaciousness of her stage presence and the skill with which she performed as a “Mercurio-femina”. As Fenton, Rhys Meirion sang with an appropriately ‘innocent’ lyricism, a ‘wooer’ in every respect at the other end of the spectrum from Falstaff. Neil Jenkins and Julian Close were aptly dissolute as Bardolph and Pistol; Anthony Mee, as Dr. Caius, much shorter than Terfel’s Falstaff, but with an abdomen approaching in size that of ‘Falstaff immenso’ was like a quarto version of the huge disproportioned folio of the knight himself. All three made valuable contributions vocally speaking. So too did Christopher Purves as Ford, a role of particular difficulty, whose misplaced imaginative energy and blindness function as complementary to the failings of Falstaff in Boito-Verdi’s design. Neither production nor Purves quite solved the problems of Ford, but these were only minor areas of weakness. Especially charming was Isaac Marks in the non-speaking/non-singing role of Falstaff’s page, an image of the young Falstaff and surely seen as such by himself.

Carlo Rizzi’s conducting was every bit as assured as one has come to expect in such repertoire as this. The interplay of voice and instruments was everywhere adroit and stimulating, not least in the complex vocal ensembles, which were generally well performed and exhilarating.

This was a very good performance indeed. But perhaps it lacked the final spark of genius or greatness. I wonder, perhaps, if Stein, the man of the theatre, didn’t expect just a little too much of the acting skills of some of the singers? Or whether the sheer precision of the stagecraft didn’t sometimes become almost too perfect, too neat, to allow full expression to the illusion of chaos created by text and music?

Yet, it must be said, if an opera goer always saw productions as good and satisfying as this, then he or she would be leading a very charmed life indeed. As I said earlier, this was an evening which straightforwardly and forcefully reminded one of just what a wonderful work this is. Too often one leaves the theatre conscious of a sizeable gap between what might have been and what was. Any such consciousness here can surely only have been an awareness of the final fraction which might measure the difference between the thoroughly satisfying and the overwhelming. The overwhelming only comes into one’s operatic life on a few occasions; if this wasn’t quite in that rare category it was supremely enjoyable, almost wholly satisfying, an intelligent, well-sung, visually rewarding representation of a far-from easy opera.

Glyn Pursglove

Pictures © Clive Barda

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