Verdi was nearly eighty when he completed his third Shakespearean opera – following Macbeth and Otello. For this new Garsington production of Falstaff Bruno Ravella sets this great comedy with late-Victorian costumes vividly imagined by Giles Cadle.
The pace is terrific as we move from a sketched-in Garter Inn (behind which the eye is drawn to a painted backcloth of Windsor Castle evocatively lit), a bustling railway station (topped by a cardboard train straight out of panto), an elegant drawing room (with exploding screen) and a haunted woodland glade creating a beautiful dreamlike closing sequence.
Has Falstaff’s life also been a dream? His past is suggested by a pre-performance portrait revealing his younger, nobler self and suggesting a distinguished, if not necessarily respectable, personality. Now a loveable yet lecherous rogue, his attempts to seduce two rich married women to improve his finances go comically wrong. Ravella reinforces the control Alice and Meg exert over him with the presence of placard-wielding Suffragettes.
Whilst much of this opera’s success depends on the strength of its ensemble numbers (rendered here with superb discipline), Verdi’s swansong needs a strong, believable Falstaff who can command the stage. To this challenge Henry Waddington’s characterisation is only partially achieved, wit and sparkle eventually emerging as interactions with Alice and Mistress Quickly become more involving; yet my attention wasn’t always held, and too often Waddington’s unfocussed tone fails to project higher notes and his musings on whether honour can satisfy the belly are underpowered.
Of other portrayals Richard Burkhard’s Ford is the real thing, knocking out his Act Two jealousy scene with ferocious expression. Colin Judson’s rants convincingly as Dr Caius, and Bardolfo and Pistola are suitably loutish as Falstaff’s henchmen. Oliver Johnston is a diffident Fenton whose ringing top notes are matched effortlessly by Soraya Mafi’s winning legato and top register as his bubbly lover Nannetta. Victoria Simmonds is a straitlaced Meg Page, Yvonne Howard excels as a colluding Mistress Quickly and Mary Dunleavy is a radiant Alice, deliciously playful and forgiving.
Richard Farnes conducts a stirring account and the Philharmonia Orchestra responds to the brilliance of Verdi’s scoring with relish, many magical moments as part of a production showcasing Verdi’s dramatic mastery if wanting in terms of poignancy.