Garsington Opera, Bucks.
Verdi’s Falstaff seems a modern piece to me; despite its première being 1893, it feels as musically up-to-date as say, Puccini’s 1926 Turandot. Verdi knew what was up in music. Before 1887, when Otello was first heard, Verdi had been in virtual retirement since Aida in 1871, and clearly noted what Wagner and his ilk were writing. At Garsington, director Bruno Ravella and designer Giles Cadle have brilliantly set the piece in the dress of the late-Victorian era of its composition, with quick-change sets that include a replica of Windsor railway station and a puffing steam locomotive. This suits Arrigo Boito’s libretto, which has mercifully little of the Henry IV’s about it.
Ravella’s staging is the best I’ve seen with respect to the narrative, which is completely clear, straightforward and focussed. The plot makes sense, with little extraneous matter, but plenty of jokes, pranks and jolly japes in the right places. Jonathan Burton’s excellent translations of Boito’s words in the surtitles show how coherent the libretto is, which is not an impression I’ve taken away from other productions. Is Boito’s libretto superior to Shakespeare’s original The Merry Wives of Windsor? For my money, it is. Boito prunes the subplots, leaving only the main storyline – Falstaff’s attempt to seduce, and steal from, Alice and Meg – and the subplot of the romance between Nanetta and Fenton.
At Garsington Ravella has done something à la minute and made the whole business the women’s story, which is a little less than comic; Falstaff is, after all, attempting to abuse them, sexually and financially, and the chief plot is about empowering the women, Alice, Meg and Nanetta. Ravella does this with (thank heavens) a feather-light touch. In the opening scene some of the women are wearing sandwich-boards; but they don’t bear the obvious slogans of the Women’s Suffrage movement. Instead they state the punch-line of the Temperance movement of the 1880s and 90s, “Lips that touch liquor shall never touch ours,” a dart directed at the centre of Falstaff’s sack-soaked soul – his belly.
Funny as this production is – how could Falstaff not be funny? – the all-too-solid dark side of Falstaff is emphasised in his Act 3, Scene 2 humiliation. Falstaff is used by the (wonderfully costumed) fairies/villagers as a human Maypole, raised into the air, and then bound in traditional Mayday ribbons that truss him as though he were a particularly fat joint of meat to be roasted.
Richard Farnes conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra with stunning variations in dynamics, at what I thought was a particularly welcome, lucid pace; less than breakneck, everything seemed to me fractionally slowed, to my pleasure, as I felt I was hearing the nuances of the score as never before. These tempi made it possible to appreciate the subtleties in Henry Waddington’s superb performance of Falstaff. Waddington’s bass-baritone is simply beautiful. I have heard bigger voices (Bryn Terfel, for instance) singing Falstaff, but never one to compare with the warm, full-chested, non-nasal sonority of Waddington, with no detectible break to the head voice, and with such generosity and stamina – as clean and mellifluous in the final fugue (the ensemble a little messy, in our second-night performance) as at the beginning. His acting is classy, too –though his character comes across as vain and licentious, his repeated “Va vecchio John” has genuine pathos, but is sung with self-knowledge rather than self-pity.
He was splendidly supported by Mary Dunleavy’s severe but sparky Alice, and Soraya Mafi’s soaring and only slightly silly Nanetta. Yvonne Howard as a moralising Mistress Quickly seemed to disapprove of fun even while she was having it herself. Ford is usually a cypher, but Richard Burkhard made him in turns jealous, raging and impotent, while singing every bit as caressingly as Oliver Johnston’s Fenton. Even Falstaff’s Page, Ansh Shetty, made the most of his silent role, contributing boyish good humour, while showing that one person, at least, still loves Falstaff.
Owing to accidents of fate, this is my first country-house opera of the season. The charms of Wormsley, where the Garsington Opera has been hosted for eight years now, are great – the grounds are glorious, the auditorium intimate and comfortable, the food and wine are exemplary, the hospitality feels genuine and everyone from the catering manager to the security guards seem to take pleasure from being helpful. Garsington Opera is in its thirtieth season, and I’ve been following it since its beginnings as the project of our friends, Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams; when it moved from the Bloomsbury Group-haunted Garsington Manor to Mark Getty’s Wormsley, it could easily have lost some of its homelier attractions. It didn’t, and congratulations and thanks are in order all around.