Sir John in Love

Vaughan Williams
Sir John in Love – A comic opera in four acts with libretto by the composer after Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” with interpolations from other Shakespeare plays and other Elizabethan poets

Sir John Falstaff – Andrew Shore
Robin – Phillip Agnew
Ford – Alastair Miles
Mistress Ford – Jean Rigby
Page – Russell Smythe
Mistress Page – Marie McLaughlin
Anne Page – Sarah Fox
William Page – Joel Marzell
Sir Hugh Evans – Iain Paterson
Host of the Garter Inn – Nicholas Folwell
Dr Caius – Robert Tear
Mistress Quickly – Sally Burgess
Rugby – Mark Richardson
Fenton – Andrew Kennedy
Shallow – Stuart Kale
Slender – Christopher Gillett
Peter Simple – Richard Coxon
Bardolph – Peter Kerr
Nym – Paul Napier-Burrows
Pistol – Graeme Danby

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Oleg Caetani

Ian Judge – Director
John Gunter – Set designer
Tim Goodchild – Costume designer
Nigel Levings – Lighting designer
Claire Glaskin – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 4 March, 2006
Venue: The Coliseum, London

1958 saw the last professional staging of Vaughan Williams’s second opera, at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, whose own opera company (ENO’s forerunner) had given the first professional staging in April 1946, some eighteen years after its completion in 1928. Malcolm Sargent had conducted the première at the Royal College of Music in 1929, following which the composer made a number of revisions.

Plaudits, then, for the bold decision by English National Opera (actually one of those taken by the now departed Seán Doran) to revive this rarely performed opera which, in spite of the lack of staging, has been recorded twice (by EMI and Chandos).

Does the end result amount to more than mere curiosity? I think, on balance, the answer is a cautious ‘yes’, though it would be idle to pretend that “Sir John in Love” will ever become a repertory piece or that it can bear close comparison with Verdi’s final masterpiece on the same subject. One of the main drawbacks is the fact that many of the characters are not distinctively defined, musically speaking. It is actually Ford – magnificently portrayed by Alastair Miles – who emerges as the most rounded and interesting person.

Many of the others are less deftly drawn by the composer, and it is actually quite difficult to work out who is who initially, unless one is familiar with the story. Nevertheless, there is a marvellous cast assembled here. Each did his or her best to invest their portrayals with as much conviction as they could muster. Of the ladies, Marie McLaughlin and Sarah Fox stood out – the former’s telling of the legend of Herne the Hunter was spellbinding and one of the relatively few moments in the opera which has real theatrical frisson. Sarah Fox’s depiction of the flighty Anne Page was a consistent delight, and her utterances as Queen of the Fairies were radiant indeed.

As her husband-to-be (despite parental opposition), Andrew Kennedy made a strong impression. It was not the singers’ fault that their love music had a curious, ‘buttoned-up’ quality, as if it were ‘not the thing’ for an English composer to write uninhibited emotional music – let alone for it to be depicted in theatrical terms. Kennedy has a large and powerful tenor, and I hope he won’t allow his enthusiasm to run away with itself, thereby coarsening his distinctive timbre.

ENO veterans Jean Rigby and Sally Burgess added to their long lists of roles they have undertaken for the company. Individually and in ensemble, they made characteristically distinctive contributions, even if in the latter, words were well-nigh inaudible.

The large collection of male characters were all well-taken, though Robert Tear could have made the ‘French’ Dr Caius witty without recourse to hammy over-exaggeration. Nicholas Folwell as the Host of the Garter Inn made a strong impression.

Although oddly absent for a deal of the time, Falstaff is, ultimately, an amiable cove who has an exaggerated sense of his own importance and, for that matter, of his ability to be attractive to the ladies. Andrew Shore did not overdo the histrionics – firm, well-projected vocal lines were sufficient – and his humiliation during the final scene was an uncomfortable sight, and his weeping reaction to it quite touching. Shore’s big voice led the final ensemble, which has one of those Vaughan Williams phrases that nags in the memory long after a single hearing, with warm- hearted generosity of spirit which, actually, characterised his whole portrayal.

But the music remains curiously uneven. I don’t find it terribly distracting when a folksong (real or invented) suddenly bursts forth, but the insistent compound time (rum-ti-tum) rhythms do become wearing after a while. To these ears, at any rate, the score is something of a patchwork, with at least one scene feeling quite redundant to the drama.

In ENO’s presentation, Vaughan Williams’s four-act scheme was, sensibly, reduced to two balanced halves. The scene which opened the second part (the original third act) was decidedly reminiscent, both musically speaking and in the depiction of ‘country-folk’, of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Sorcerer”, and when clumsy choreography was added, leaden in imitating the music, it was, to be honest, rather embarrassing.

In general terms, the staging was effective. A multi-purpose see-through set served as various houses, the Garter Inn, etc., and there was a ‘toy-town’ Windsor Castle in the background, with trees to match. But why on earth were Windsor folk given ‘Mummerset’ accents? Most odd and surely out of keeping. The clothing was inconsistent – Ford wore a business suit, the ladies had shopped at Harrods, whereas others seemed to be in ‘period’ costume – but this did not really detract in any way. The final, midnight, scene was very well staged, and here choreography, action and music fused as one to create consistent music-led drama – a key ingredient crucially missing elsewhere in this opera.

Oleg Caetani conducted efficiently and effectively, the orchestra played well and, in sum, whatever reservations there may be about this opera (and incidental details of this staging), it can surely have never been given as fine – and convincing – a production as it receives here.

  • The first night was 2 March
  • Further performances on 14, 17 & 23 March at 7.30, and 11 & 25 March and 1 April at 6.30
  • Box Office: 020 7632 8300
  • English National Opera
  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 20 May

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