Falstaff – Commedia lirica in three acts to a libretto by Arrigo Boito after William Shakespeare’s plays The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV Parts I & II [sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Sir John Falstaff – Olafur Sigurdarson
Ford – George von Bergen
Alice Ford – Linda Richardson
Meg Page – Carolyn Dobbin
Mistress Quickly – Carole Wilson
Nannetta – Rhona McKail
Fenton – Benjamin Hulett
Dr Caius – Christopher Turner
Bardolfo – Brian Galliford
Pistola – Simon Wilding
Opera Holland Park Chorus
City of London Sinfonia
Annilese Miskimmon – Director
Nicky Shaw – Designer
Mark Jonathan – Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: 20 July, 2012
Venue: Opera Holland Park, Kensington, London
The fat knight rises. Not one but two distinguished interpretations of Verdi’s great buffo role have graced London’s stages this summer, and however prodigious the Royal Opera’s Ambrogio Maestri was, Opera Holland Park has a performance here that eclipses even him. The Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson is an immense Falstaff: he sings with power and warmth, clowns stylishly and throws his burly frame around the stage with an acrobatic abandon that appears, like the bumble-bee, to defy the laws of aerodynamics. A body-length pratfall in Alice Ford’s bedroom? Certainly. A full-blooded cartwheel just before “Va, Vecchio John”? By all means.
Musically, this Falstaff is a treat. Under Peter Robinson’s stylish and idiomatic conducting the City of London Sinfonia made a lusher sound than it mustered for the recent Eugene Onegin, filling OHP’s unforgiving canopies with resonant Verdian splendour. A supporting cast, assembled from strength, matched the players for volume and gusto while Kelvin Lim’s excellent OHP Chorus fulfilled its busy role with choral and dramatic assurance.
As the seedy duo of Bardolfo and Pistola, Brian Galliford and Simon Wilding were a terrific double-act lurking alongside Sigurdarson’s Sir John. These two singers’ combined depth of experience allowed their every appearance to bring lustre and energy to the performance, while George von Bergen did everything he could to flesh out the significant yet undercharacterised part of Ford (the fleeting exposition of whose character is one of librettist Arrigo Boito’s few dramatic flaws). The always-impressive von Bergen raged with befuddled passion during Ford’s second-act soliloquy, “È sogno?”.
Linda Richardson was colourful but a little quiet as Ford’s wife Alice, whereas her partners-in-crime Meg Page (another thinly-written role) and the sweet old slapper Mistress Quickly came vividly to life in the respective performances of Carolyn Dobbin and Carole Wilson. Add strong contributions from Rhona McKail and Benjamin Hulett as the young lovers, Nanetta and Fenton, and the outstanding quality of this Falstaff is assured. Rarely, though, has so much talent had been placed at the service of such a meagre production.
In 2011 Annilese Miskimmon directed a ravishing account of Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz for OHP, but on this year’s sledgehammer evidence it appears that comedy is not her strength. From the outset Miskimmon fails to ground Falstaff in reality, with the result that this Shakespearean farce is never that essential whisker away from tragedy.
The Garter Inn appears to be a post-First World War sanatorium set in a Windsor of little boxes on a hillside. A tacky opening joke involves tipping an injured soldier out of his wheelchair; the second gag a few moments later involves repeating the first one, but to a different casualty. The law of diminishing comic returns applies as the director fishes for laughs up Cliché Creek, hence predictable clusters of eye-popping onlookers peer round corners, a legion of comedy vicars invade the Fords’ cramped bedroom and a nervous scoutmaster struggles to knock his knees together.
Nicky Shaw’s settings (beautifully lit by Mark Jonathan) are sporadically inventive but, like the production itself, they never quite transcend the village hall. Verdi’s comedy may have English roots but it’s still a 19th-century Italian extravaganza, so to stage it like Albert Herring is to diminish it. Even so, from a musical standpoint this Falstaff, the final Holland Park offering of the season, is a gem that deserves to find an audience as wide as the old man’s girth.
- Performances until 3 August