In case you’re so pressure-cooker busy you don’t have time to read the rest of this review (cue scream-face emoji), I’ll come straight to the point:
This Opera North production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” is simply splendid.
Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff is one of literature’s great comic characters – a fat, old guy who still rates his chances with much younger women (pauses for a moment’s contemplation). To make matters worse, whilst the corpulent knight is not short on lust, his professions of love for two young women (Alice Ford and Meg Page) are sparked less by romance than by a desire to gain access to their husbands’ wealth. Lazy, as well as outrageously cocksure, he sends them identical love letters, with only the names being changed to deflect the innocent.
The young women are, of course, too smart for him. Being particularly savvy, Alice manages not only to humiliate Falstaff, but to con her pompous husband into blessing their daughter Nannetta’s marriage to young Fenton, thus thwarting Ford’s plan to wed her to the sleazy Dr Caius.
Leslie Travers’s opening set surely nods to Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem.” We meet Falstaff holding court not at The Garter Inn, but outside his rickety caravan. Travers manages to portray the knight’s threadbare existence whilst evoking rural England – deer and antlers stand alongside standard lamps, rugs, cushions, a dartboard and other bric-a-brac.
Amanda Holden’s translation of Arrigo Boito’s libretto is packed with wit and appropriate liberties. This, in concert with the cast’s antics (under Olivia Fuchs’s tirelessly imaginative direction), sprinkles the performance with laugh-out-loud moments.
Dr Caius: You entered my house.
Falstaff: But not your housemaid.
At the risk of echoing a particularly irksome feature of daytime tv, I feel obliged to note that Verdi was quite long-in-the-tooth when he wrote this, his final opera:
“This is Giuseppe. Now, Giuseppe’s just written an opera. And how old are you, Giuseppe?”
“I’m nearly eighty.”
“Nearly eighty! Isn’t that marvellous?”
(Patronising round of applause.)
It is worth ruminating on, though, isn’t it?
Having closed act two by throwing poor Jack Falstaff, along with a crate of dirty laundry, into the Thames, act three (post-interval) picks up from there with a fabulous comic moment (which I will not spoil: go see!)
Ridiculous and roguish though he is, there are puddles of pathos and honesty in Sir John’s character, into which Verdi and Boito occasional dip their musical toes. When his sidekicks/servants, Bardolph and Pistol at first refuse to deliver the perfidious love letters, standing on their ‘honour’, he rails at them that honour pays no bills, fills no bellies (and, as we know, Sir John’s vast belly is his empire). When he later slows the pace and laments, “I am old,” there is a momentary veracity that reminds us that age and poverty has never been a happy combination.
The final scene features a striking centrepiece as Travers builds Herne the Hunter’s oak as a tree of antlers.
Isabelle Peters seizes her debut moment as Nannetta, delivering an especially sweet aria as a fancy-dress Queen of the Fairies.
Another Opera North debutant, Kate Royal, as Alice Ford, has an outstanding night, making Alice a young woman to be reckoned with. Royal sings with assurance and shows us genuine stage presence.
The orchestra pit seems deeper and wider than usual, but Garry Walker marshals his musicians with gusto and discipline. It’s good to see ON’s excellent chorus having fun as fairies, hobgobblins and the like.
But the night, as it has to, belongs to Sir John Falstaff; boisterous, blustering buffoon that he is, brought vividly to life by Henry Waddington, who constructs a character big enough to own that belly. Waddington’s vocal performance is also exceptional – his diction clear and precise enough to render the surtitles redundant.
As the story reaches its climax, Sir John is, once again, cast down only to raise himself up, yet again, for the finale. “Tutto nel mondo è burla…” is a glorious, joyous, energetic ensemble:
“Life is a burst of laughter,” sing one and all, “so, be happy hereafter.”
And why not? This evening’s audience makes for home more than happy. Rightly so.
One final thought. On the journey in, I encountered some youngsters headed for the ao Arena to see American rapper, 50 Cent. With no lack of irony, given his stage name, they told me their seats had cost £150 a head. If that’s the going rate, then, no question, this night at the opera is a real bargain.
Opera North – Falstaff is at the Lowry on 15 and 18 November. Their tour also includes Masque of Might and La Rondine.