Tony Britten and his Music Theatre London company came to the
prominence in the 1990s with a series of adaptations of the Mozart/Da
Ponte operas. These were mounted at the Drill Hall in London.
Britten re-wrote the text into witty English, replaced the recitative
by spoken dialogue, re-scored the works for a small ensemble and
used actors instead of opera singers. The results, evidently,
were witty and hugely enjoyable.
On this DVD, Britten
has produced a film of his 2005 version of Verdi’s Falstaff.
The mixture is pretty much as before except that there is no
spoken dialogue apart from a few muttered asides over the music.
Britten has updated
the work to the modern day. The Inn has become a golf club in
Windsor with Falstaff - referred to ironically as Sir John -
an habitué at the bar with his taxi-driver friends, Bardolph
and Pistol. From the first, Britten and his designer have caught
exactly the look of a sit-com or ITV comedy drama. Though whether
it is illuminating to turn Falstaff into a sitcom, I am really
The DVD was recorded
on location in and around a real golf club and the club acts
as the setting for most of the scenes barring a few in the Fords’
home. Ford has a big modern house and when he is Mr Brook he
becomes a pseudo Mafioso, Signor Fontana. Britten gives the
characters extensive back-story so that Falstaff is a ‘resting’
actor with only one TV series to his credit.
on location, it has luckily been dubbed in the studio. I say
luckily, because Verdi’s vocal writing rather taxes the actors
and the studio presumably enabled them to give of their best.
The draw-back is that the piece does not sound as it looks;
the sound-stage remains constant throughout the various locations
and does not come across as a sit-com. Also the dubbing is imperfect
and there are times when the actors just do not look as if they
Singing Verdi, even
when with a reduced accompaniment is completely different from
singing an aria or a song. This is especially true of Falstaff
where Verdi effectively eschews the aria, using continuous dialogue
and quite a lot of ensemble work. It is here that the production
really comes unstuck. In the solo moments and the dialogues
the actors bring enough wit and liveliness into the music that
you can (almost) forgive them the sketchy details and shaky
notes. Even so, the ensembles do not seem to work. This is especially
true as the high lines cause problems for the sopranos in the
All the actors work
hard. Ian Jervis is a suitably sleazy Falstaff, but is somehow
reduced by this version. Rather than shedding new light on the
piece, Britten has managed to shrink big John into something
smaller and more weasel-like. Daniel Gillingwater, Simon Masterton
Smith and Simon Butteriss are good enough as Bardolph, Pistol
and Doctor Cajus, but they are pretty much stock sit-com figures.
The most rounded, sympathetic figures are the Alice Ford and
Meg Page of Jan Hartley and Rosamund Shelly. Marilyn Cutts also
gives a strong performance as Mistress Quickly. Nanetta Ford
is neatly played by Katie Lovell, with the character rather
more knowing than Verdi/Boito/Shakespeare’s original. It was
Lovell, I think, who had the most problems with the tessitura
of Nanetta’s part. Andy Morton’s Fenton looked too mature, and
rather crooned Fenton’s music. But he certainly showed a great
deal of flesh. Britten seemed to have a fascination with bath
scenes. Fenton and Nanetta have one and Falstaff imagines a
similar one for himself and Alice Ford.
Julian Forsyth is
suitably stupid as Francis Ford, here turned into a QC. But
his stupidity seems to make him a stock figure of fun and we
never quite feel the sympathy for him that we do in Verdi’s
The ending just
about works, with a bit of a stretch. There is no chorus of
children but the characters all wear crazy costumes and Ian
Jervis bravely wanders around wearing nothing but antlers and
a pair of novelty Rudolph the Reindeer underpants. The dénouement,
when it comes, is diminished like the characters. As these are
not real people, their reactions do not really matter so that
Falstaff’s bringing everyone together and the final chorus seem
but mummery. And I certainly never want to hear the final chorus
of the opera sung like that again.
Jonathan Gill directs
his ensemble of players well and the reduction of Verdi’s score
only serves to illustrate what a miracle the original is.
If you enjoyed the
original Music Theatre productions then you might enjoy this.
But performing in a musical is vastly different from singing
Verdi. Despite a lot of hard work neither Britten nor his cast
quite convince us that replacing singers with actors is a good
idea - much is lost and not a lot is gained.