United Kingdom Verdi: Falstaff: Soloists and Chorus of Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia / Peter Robinson (conductor), Holland Park, London, 20.7.2012. (GD)
Falstaff: Olafur Sigurdarson
Ford: George von Bergen
Alice Ford: Linda Richardson
Meg: Page Carolyn Dobbin
Mistress Quickly: Carole Wilson
Nanetta: Rhona McKail
Fenton: Benjamin Hulett
Dr Caius: Christopher Turner
Bardolpho :Brian Galliford
Pistola: Simon Wilding
Director Annilese Miskimmon
Designer Nicky Shaw
Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan
Falstaff seems the ideal opera for this company, not least because the whole of the last act takes place in a West London park. Yet this production is the first Holland Park has ever staged. It is their last offering for the year, and they’ve ended the season on a real high.
Director Annilese Miskimmon was responsible for the greatest triumph in last year’s season, l’Amico Fritz in a production that updated the action to the 1950s. This Falstaff shares many of the qualities on display there. Miskimmon clearly takes a hands-on approach to every aspect of her stagings, so nothing is left to chance, and everything that happens integrates into a considered and well thought out interpretation. The result is a staging that is slick, funny and sexy; and while the historical setting has been changed, every lyric and performance direction is acknowledged, occasionally with a clever twist, but never at the expense of the work itself.
The production transports the action to London, or Windsor rather, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. This idea may have been inspired by Falstaff’s discharge from military service at the start, but after that its rationale grows thin. All the union jacks, bunting and maypoles may be intended to underline issues of national identity, although that was hardly a priority for the composer or librettist here.
So there are no real psychological insights from the updating, but it does provide an excellent visual theme for a stage aesthetic that is both attractive and coherent. There’s plenty of slapstick here too, which is all the finnier for its tight choreography. The men appearing onstage invariably end up dressed as priests or policemen, or rather comedy priests and comedy policemen. Verdi and Boito provide the details to fill out this scenario, and it all runs like clockwork.
Musically, this performance was impressively strong. As ever at Holland Park, most of the singers are up-and-coming, and while all put in fine performances, many suggested they could be giving more consummate readings of their roles in five or ten years time. This was particularly true of the female leads, Linda Richardson as Alice, and Rhona McKail as Nanetta, both of whom had all the notes under control, but could just do with a little more finesse, especially at the top. George von Bergen, in the role of Ford, is another name to watch. His voice is light, but he has a real verismo sound, and the complexity and dark richness to his tone allows him to convey an extraordinary range of emotions.
It is rare to find a singer who is able to fill the marquee that constitutes an auditorium at Holland Park – a problem their policy of hiring younger singers can only exacerbate. How refreshing then to hear Olafur Sigurdarson sing Falstaff with as much power and presence as the venue and the role demand. Sigurdarson was born to sing Falstaff, both his voice and his body language are ideal for the part. And while he is able to fill the venue with sound, he can also bring the timbre of his singing down, almost to speaking – a talent Verdi’s music often requires. And his roly poly slapstick was excellent, fitting precisely to the mood and pace of the music.
In the pit, the orchestra had a better night of it than they did for last week’s premiere of Onegin. A few more strings had been booked, which was a great help. The orchestra was still relatively small, but the tuttis never suffered, and conductor Peter Robinson was able to create all the havoc he needed for the bust ups and brawls, while always keeping the ensemble tightly controlled.
An excellent end to Holland Park’s 2012 season then. Falstaff was here presented as a real ensemble piece, with almost uniform musical quality from the cast, and a production that finds meaningful interpretations for each of their roles. But the real star of the show was undoubtedly Olafur Sigurdarson. If you get the chance to hear him sing Falstaff, here or anywhere else, make sure you go.