United Kingdom Verdi, Falstaff: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Garry Walker (conductor). Lyric Theatre, The Lowry, Salford Quays, 15.11.2023. (MC)
Stage director – Olivia Fuchs
Set designer – Leslie Travers
Costume designer – Gabrielle Dalton
Lighting designers – Paule Constable & Ben Pickersgill
Movement director – Lauren Poulton
Falstaff – Henry Waddington
Alice Ford – Kate Royal
Meg Page – Helen Évora
Nannetta – Isabelle Peters
Fenton – Egor Zhuravskii
Ford – Richard Burkhard
Mistress Quickly – Louise Winter
Dr. Caius – Paul Nilon
Bardolph – Colin Judson
Pistol – Dean Robinson
For my money Verdi’s three act Falstaff (which premiered in Milan in 1893) his final opera, is his ugly duckling. Verdi is feted for his serious dramatic operas containing glorious orchestration and striking arias that combine to generate significant drama. Not known for his comedic works, Verdi was in his eightieth year when writing Falstaff his first foray into comedy since the failure of Un giorno di regno (1840) over fifty years earlier. Unlike many of his mid-to-late operas Falstaff can be easily overlooked by Verdians. There are none of the traditional big set-piece arias and ensembles, only very brief examples. Additionally, the music is continuous from beginning to end, continually changing and developing.
Arrito Boito’s libretto to Falstaff features the rotund knight Sir John Falstaff and is based on Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor, together with parts from Henry IV. Finding himself in straitened circumstances, the lovable old rascal Falstaff devises a ridiculous money-making scheme. Falstaff thinks he will win the lottery with his plan to seduce a pair of wealthy married women, Alice Ford and Meg Page, and get his hands on their husband’s money. By foolishly sending the same love letter to both Alice and Meg, Falstaff’s nefarious ruse begins to fall apart. One might see the impoverished circumstances of the knight Falstaff as highlighting the anachronism of the honours system with the idealism of privilege and expectation that still goes along with it. Here the Opera North soloists and chorus sang Boito’s Italian libretto of Falstaff in Amanda Holden’s English translation that is both sagacious and full of wit.
Verdi and Boito set Falstaff in the early-fifteenth century at Windsor during the reign of Henry IV of England. It was sensible for stage director Olivia Fuchs to ensure her production was not over complicated. Her creative team of Leslie Travers for sets and Gabrielle Dalton for costumes had brought the setting of Falstaff forward to what looked like the 1980s. Opera North’s large storage warehouse had been plundered for items suitable for repurposing. Found in a pub car park, a shabby old caravan had been restored to serve as Falstaff’s home, with one side wall of the caravan removed, it was the main focus of the set. Outside the caravan Falstaff sat in a quasi-throne made out of a battered old Chesterfield high back, wing chair, raised onto a pile of old boxes and beer crates. In the final act, in Windsor Great Park the set was dominated by a tree constructed out of real antlers shed by deer at Harewood House and once again contained another elevated chair. At one point Falstaff sat among the deer antler tree dressed in a camouflage suit. Positioned on stage in every scene was a model of an inquisitive looking roe deer.
From Act II, Scene one the set was a tennis court with its green floor and white net and line markings, with an umpire chair, all inside a picket fence. The tennis court stood out for its total contrast to the scruffiness of Falstaff’s caravan. At the tennis club the wealthy women of Windsor gathered in their pristine tennis whites, to look the part, and to gossip. It is here that Alice and Meg discovered their love letters from Falstaff were identical and then conspired to teach him a lesson.
Bryn Terfel has always been my archetypal Falstaff because he is so adept at portraying the drunken buffoon with his delusional irresistibility to women who nonetheless is a highly engaging character. Now, having seen Henry Waddington’s quite magnificent performance, he can join Terfel as an exemplary exponent of the eponymous hero. Rotund, with belly padding, and scruffily dressed as Falstaff, Waddington had the advantage of a natural stage presence and acting skills together with an ample and expressive bass-baritone, all used to significant effect.
Making her debut for Opera North was soprano Kate Royal as Alice Ford, one of the wealthy wives of Windsor. Royal was a wily character, far too bright for Falstaff to outwit. Singing beautifully with a noticeable sweet tone and most comfortable in her high register, Royal’s pleasing stagecraft was there for all to see.
Russian/Ukrainian tenor Egor Zhuravskii sang the role of Fenton, the lovestruck suitor of Nannetta. At times the tenor’s bright voice was overpowered by the orchestra, however his Italianate serenading of Nannetta was most affecting. In pleasing voice, Isabelle Peters was a capricious Nannetta and achieved her long held, high notes with comparative ease. In the role of Ford, Anglo/Swiss baritone Richard Burkhard provided a real highlight with the so-called jealousy aria. In secure voice and projecting his high notes so well, Burkhard was convincing as Ford swearing his revenge and fearful of jeopardising his reputation.
Music director Garry Walker conducted the orchestra of Opera North with his usual aplomb. The orchestra responded to Walker who adopted generally swift tempi that suited the work down to the ground. Coached by chorus master Anthony Kraus the Opera North singers were in splendid voice.
Undoubtedly I will remember the performance for Henry Waddington’s compelling Falstaff. One minute you would cringe at Falstaff’s nasty habits and crass money-making schemes, the next minute laugh at his well-timed humour.
Note: Opera North Green Season – ‘This autumn The Opera North Green Season includes the three operas Falstaff, Masque of Might and La rondine that are all sustainable productions. Opera North is striving to reduce its environmental impact, to achieve the aim of being carbon neutral by 2030 and inspire wider change towards a more sustainable future. All three Green Season productions use shared scenic elements to create three interlinked yet distinctive designs, enabling Opera North to reduce its use of materials and its carbon footprint. All sets, props and costumes in the season are sourced from previous productions or purchased secondhand.’