British Youth Opera at Opera Holland Park – Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love

Vaughan Williams
Sir John in Love – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by the composer after Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, with interpolations from other plays and other authors [sung in English with English surtitles]

Sir John Falstaff – Conrad Chatterton
Bardolph – Phillip Costovski
Nym – Toki Hamano
Pistol – Armand Rabot
The Host of The Garter Inn – Patrick Owston
Meg Page – Samantha Quillish
George Page – William Kyle
Anne Page – Clara Barbier Serrano
Alice Ford – Rachel Roper
Frank Ford – Conall O’Neill
John – Eoin Foran
Mistress Quickly – Nancy Holt
Doctor Caius – Justin Jacobs
John Rugby – Edward Kim
Robert Shallow – Joshua Saunders
Abraham Slender – James Micklethwaite
Peter Simple – Matthew Bawden
Hugh Evans – Emyr Lloyds Jones
Fenton – Sam Harris

British Youth Opera Chorus

Southbank Sinfonia
Marit Strindlund

Harry Fehr – Director
Nate Gibson – Designer
Chuma Emembolu – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 25 August, 2022
Venue: Opera Holland Park, Kensington, London

First, all praise to British Youth Opera for seemingly being the only company in the country mounting a stage-work by Vaughan Williams in the 150th-year of his birth. Anniversaries need not, of course, constitute the only reason to explore the less well-known aspects of a composer’s output, but with few other chances to see his operas staged hitherto, it is hard to see why there would be any more prospect of one once this year has passed.

This production, directed by Harry Fehr and invested with BYO’s enthusiasm and energy, demonstrated that Sir John in Love, at least, among Vaughan Williams’s operas, is one that has a great deal of vivacity and charm, deserving to be seen more often, and would surely make a particularly apt choice for summer festivals, as here. The score is imbued with the composer’s style through and through (not only on account of the quotation of ‘Greensleeves’, which formed the basis for his much more famous Fantasia upon that tune) and on the whole is dramatically concise. Furthermore, the libretto is based directly on the text of Shakespeare’s play, and so in some respects remains truer to the spirit of the original than Verdi’s Falstaff, even though it covers essentially the same sequence of events, if casting different angles and emphases upon them (for instance, Falstaff’s being hurled into the Thames is a rather more lowkey incident here, and not quite the climax it forms in Verdi’s opera).

The action is located around the 1940s, making it a credibly recent time in which such respectable pillars of the community as a doctor (Caius), a magistrate (Shallow), and a parson (Hugh Evans) might move so visibly and naturally among the society depicted. The set is simple but effective in framing the central narrative for each scene between a screen of Tudor-arched windows – mimicking those of the façade of Holland House against which the stage is pushed up – and therefore evoking the era in which Shakespeare wrote his play (if not the early-fifteenth-century). To the sides of that, various scenes are continuously mimed in counterpoint to replicate the world of Windsor beyond, be it the Garter Inn, the doctor’s surgery, or the drawing rooms of the Page or Ford households. The massed scenes in Act Four where all the characters come together to decide how they will humiliate Falstaff, and then enact the ghoulish masquerade in the forest, become disappointingly static by comparison, though the small stage (partly thrust around the orchestra in a narrow runway or ring) makes it difficult to choreograph anything too dynamically menacing.

In any event, vivacity is certainly maintained in the musical performances by the keenly committed young cast. Conrad Chatterton convincingly realises the old rogue Falstaff with charm and vocal rigour, who is made here (on balance, wisely) not so much as a caricature glutton but more sleekly dapper and apparently in command of his schemes which seem lucidly planned out, not the hairbrained tricks of an addled mind. Samantha Quillish and Rachel Roper make a redoubtable, well-complemented pair as Meg Page and Alice Ford, the objects of Falstaff’s interest. Conall O’Neill has a dark, ashen sonority as Frank Ford, and in his disguise to uncover the knight’s wiles comes to resemble more some sort of gangster villain, and introduces a note of serious opposition to Falstaff, lacking some humour too.

A different sort of earnestness is brought to bear on the genuine romantic affection between Anne Page and Fenton, Clara Barbier Serrano solidly and passionately projecting the music of the former, Sam Harris airier and less powered or full throated as the latter. Justin Jacobs remains particularly eloquent as the flustered Dr Caius as he lapses into French, whilst the other members of Windsor society here exchange lively banter and asides, maintaining the drama’s cut and thrust. In the Page household, William Kyle conveys identifiable authority as the father, and Dominic Morgan a certain sense of gormlessness as the son.

Marit Strindlund and the Southbank Sinfonia also exude palpable enjoyment in the score. The performance remains jaunty and exacting throughout, navigating a cogent course through Vaughan Williams’s typically modal melodies and harmonies, but cultivating a lyrical strain for more delicate passages or the folksong quotations that are interwoven within the musical setting, giving it overall a distinctly English tint.

Altogether this is a heart-warming summer evening’s entertainment, making the most positive case for a delightful opera that stands on its own terms and felicities, without needing to bear comparison with Verdi.

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