When embarking on Sir John in Love, Vaughan
Williams considered his greatest competition to be from Shakespeare,
Verdi and Holst, but he might have added Nicolai and Elgar to the list.
He, like Verdi and Nicolai before him, opted for the comic rather than
the tragic figure of that well-loved character. It took many years to
come to fruition, from 1913 to 1928, though the last four of those years
saw serious work on the project. Sargent conducted the first performance,
at the Royal College of Music on 21 March 1929. Though shadowing Shakespeare's
Merry Wives of Windsor, Vaughan Williams also used other sources (such
as Ben Jonson, Thomas Campion, Marlowe and even Psalm 137) to cover
arias and choruses, and there is a fair sprinkling (ten) of English
folktunes 'to enhance a dramatic point', a highlight being Sarah Connolly
as Mrs Ford singing 'Greensleeves' in the third scene of Act Three.
VW's characterisation of Falstaff lends him dignity, and underplays
the buffoon, he is more lyrical than tragi-comic, he rumbles rather
than sparkles, so it is no surprise that he changed the title from The
Fat Knight to Sir John in love. Many of the other characters are fleshed
out in more detail than in Verdi's opera.
Apart from the American Laura Claycomb (as Mrs Page)
Chandos have assembled a British cast of names largely familiar to the
opera/oratorio scene here; there are no weak links and the result is
highly successful with excellent orchestral playing by the Northern
Sinfonia under the indefatigable Richard Hickox, who includes Vaughan
Williams among his many British specialities. The disc does its best
to provide atmosphere, such as sound effects, distance etc and there
are delightful cameos such as Stephen Varcoe's over-the-top Welsh parson,
and Anne-Marie Owens as the plump-voiced Mistress Quickly. The music
has ravishing moments, Vaughan Williams is at his best when love and
passion are driving the drama (the Fifth Symphony and the Tallis Fantasia
are frequently brought to mind) though there are also longueurs. But
you need only to listen to the glorious, virginally fresh voice of Susan
Gritton as Anne Page, and Mark Padmore as her ardent lover in the role
of Fenton to forget about them.
You may wish to compare this set with the excellent
EMI recording by Meredith Davies from the 1970s. CMS 566123 2.
If there is anyone out there who would be able to provide
a comparative review of the two sets then we would be happy to include
that on the site as well.
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