United Kingdom Verdi, Falstaff: Soloists, The Glyndebourne Chorus and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Glyndebourne Theatre, Sussex, 19.5.2013. (JPr)
Falstaff: Laurent Naouri
Alice Ford: Ailyn Pérez
Ford: Roman Burdenko
Meg Page: Lucia Cirillo
Mistress Quickly: Susanne Resmark
Nannetta: Elena Tsallagova
Fenton: Antonio Poli
Dr Caius: Graham Clark
Bardolfo: Colin Judson
Pistola: Paolo Battaglia
Director: Richard Jones
Revival Director: Sarah Fahie
Lighting Designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin
With a number of collaborators Richard Jones’s work on the Ring, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Gianni Schicchi and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – to name a few of his productions – have a certain ‘look’ to them, especially because of his penchant for updating the setting of their stories. His 2009 Falstaff is no exception and here we are in a Britain just after World War II. This is an earlier time of austerity but with perhaps less cynicism and less pessimism than today. Despite some evidence of the recent conflict there is a sense of renewal and also (as Richard Jones’s helpful Director’s Note explains) ‘The women have gained some independence and a newfound sociability through their war effort. In a post-war Britain of rationing they economise, grow their own vegetables, and are resourceful with available fabrics.’ Meanwhile Falstaff remains a shameless old reprobate with an ‘irresponsible appetite, sense of entitlement and shameless sexism’.
The frontcloth is an elaborate faux needlepoint tapestry of Windsor Castle that three Brownies are finishing. This rises to reveal George VI’s portrait looking down from the wall of the Garter Inn, where Laurent Naouri’s heavy-drinking, glutton Sir John Falstaff is writing his love letters for Meg Page and Alice Ford on a typewriter that has seen better days. Mistress Quickly (Susanne Resmark) is a battle-axe from the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service); Ford seems to be all new money and striving for upward mobility, living with Alice in a mock Tudor style house typical of the twentieth-century suburbanisation of the Home Counties. In Scene 2 we see their garden of cabbages and meet his daughter, Nannetta (Elena Tsallagova) and Fenton (Antonio Poli) an American GI. Ford (Roman Burdenko) clearly believes the adage about the American soldiers on their European sojourn that they were ‘oversexed, overpaid and over here’ and mistrusts Fenton’s intentions for his daughter and wants to marry her off to the elderly Dr Caius, here a senior master of Eton College.
It’s all typically full of Jones’s irrelevant details, such as, the ginger cat (a puppet) we first see in the Garter Inn; the college rowing team which casually passes back and forth through Ford’s garden while the ladies are plotting their revenge; and some Eton schoolboys peering into the Thames to see if they can spot whether Sir John had become a beached whale at the start of the last act as he had made quite a splash when dumped out of his laundry basket in to the river. Later a swan makes slightly uncertain progress along the apron of the stage. One of Richard Jones’s strength is that, unlike some directors, he actually listens to the music and his ‘comedy of manners’ and the other ‘physical business’ he presents us with is only reflecting what is already there in Verdi’s score.
The evening is chock-full of good nature, genuine wit and quite a few belly laughs – not at all difficult with a Falstaff who is shown to be all prosthetic stomach and man-boobs! Perhaps if there is some minor disappointment it is the slightly anticlimactic final scene. It is one of the most moving in all opera but here misses its target but not in such a way as to undermine the genuine success of the evening. We are supposed to feel some sympathy for this pomposity-pricking of Falstaff as he suffers the taunts of Windsor society before the grand reconciliation at the end but this is undermined by the parade of 1930s horror film characters. Dracula (Ford), Frankenstein (Pistol), the Invisible Man and all the assorted ghosts, zombies and goblins seen are not really reflected in the diaphanous enchantments of Verdi’s music.
I think my problem with Falstaff is that the music – glorious as it is – can be taken too seriously, too symphonically if you will. This is not the problem here where there is as much humour in the pit as on stage and I could imagine Sir Mark Elder and the outstanding Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment accompanying the action with broad grins on their faces. I doubt this was the case but that’s what it felt like to listen to. Obviously their late-nineteenth century instruments are probably not as loud as ‘modern’ ones and there was no danger therefore that any of the singers would be drowned. Elder and the OAE’s accompaniment was nuanced, richly detailed, rhythmically alert and atmospheric and I doubt I will ever hear this music played better. It was amazing how much of the Verdi of Otello I noticed as never before, especially when in Act II Scene 1 Falstaff goes offstage to get ready for his afternoon tryst with Alice Ford and her husband, who has been attempting to dupe him as ‘Mr Brook’, has an Iago-like outburst.
Nor can it have been better sung in the modern era with all performances giving great pleasure: the great Graham Clark with Paolo Battaglia and Colin Judson had great fun with Dr Caius, Pistol and Bardolph and Elena Tsallagova (Nannetta) and Antonio Poli (Fenton) were physically ideal and had pure-toned, lyrical voices. Alice Ford was gleefully and radiantly sung by Ailyn Pérez who with Lucia Cirillo’s spirited Meg Page made a fine pair of partners-in-crime. Even better than these were Roman Burdenko’s jealous Ford that was well-sung and characterised and Susanne Resmark’s redoubtable Mistress Quickly: she had the chest notes and larger-than-life personality to play Falstaff at his own game and win! Ms Resmark is a singer who I will look out for again, if not in Verdi then in Wagner where there are a number of roles she should excel in.
Perhaps I’m seeing too much because I had forgotten that my last Falstaff was as recently as last year at Covent Garden. Back in 1975 (yes the 1970s!) it was one of the first operas I saw there in its lavishly traditional Franco Zeffirelli staging with the incomparable Geraint Evans in the title role. I then saw all three subsequent productions by Ronald Eyre (1982), Graham Vick (1999) and Robert Carsen (2012). This might give the impression that this opera is a favourite of mine. This is not so, as it is on a short list – headed by Ariadne auf Naxos – that I am happy to return to from time to time in the hope that I will get more out of it. Geraint Evans was a very well-loved Falstaff and naturally his performance, the first I saw, gains a lot because of the ‘rosy glow’ of memory over the subsequent years but this this never distracted me from having divided opinions about Verdi’s final opera. Previously, I could never really understand what the fuss was all about and why others thought it was his best. Coming to Glyndebourne has brought an epiphany that was more to do with the exceptionally talented cast, the joyful, yet refined accompaniment of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the experience leadership of Sir Mark Elder than the sunny day and the delightful picnic I had on one of elegant lawns there. I have been finally convinced that performed like this it is an undoubted masterpiece – though I accept many will not need me to tell them that!
Now when I think of Falstaff, it will be less Geraint Evans and more Laurent Naouri. In the fat suit he wore with consummate ease, he brought us someone who is still light on his feet and full of self-deception that beneath the blubber is the slim young soldier who served the Duke of Norfolk in the Boer War and remains god’s gift to women. Despite his foibles or the unnerving sight of his body virtually unclothed – or even when clothed in a safari suit with shorts – it is a totally life-affirming comedic performance and splendidly sung.
If you cannot get to Glyndebourne then you can see the season in cinemas live or as previously recorded performances. This year’s new Ariadne auf Naxos (4th June) will be the first of six operas and Falstaff (recorded live with a different cast in 2009) will follow on 20thJune. These will be screened to over 100 cinemas in the UK and available free of charge on the Guardian and Glyndebourne websites, where they will be available for two weeks after the first streaming.
For more about forthcoming opera at 2013 Glyndebourne Festival visit http://www.glyndebourne.com/.