From the opening bars of Verdi's last opera, taken slightly more slowly than many a production I have seen, but phrased with exquisite care and balance by the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski, you know you are in for a special evening. And so it proves. This is quite simply a wonderful Falstaff, a subtly comic, effervescent reading of the opera that gets everything right, from the post-war period detail of the costumes and stage settings to the characterisation, dramatic and musical, of all the lead roles. And what a cast Glyndebourne have assembled. They inhabit the roles they have been allocated like perfectly fitted gloves. For that, huge credit to director Richard Jones and to his designer Ultz, who have put behind them the awkwardnesses of their 2007 foray into Verdi at Glyndebourne, with Macbeth, and who have come up with a Falstaff that looks wonderful, plays absolutely naturally and dazzles musically. It is an experience I shall treasure for a long time, for this is a five star production if ever there was one.
The structure of Verdi's two scenes in Act One can be problematic in some directors' hands. Scene one is brash and bouncy, with men's voices raised in argument much of the time, and it can all become slightly tiring if overplayed, even at the outset of the opera. Not so here: in a marvellously evocative shift of milieu, the Garter Inn becomes a sort of licensed Windsor refreshment parlour, with ladies sitting at tables making their post-war teas and coffees (I can't believe they were drinking stout!) last half the morning whilst they (silently) chat. Mine Host of the Garter clearly has a wife, or at least a female employee, and she attends to Falstaff's material needs, while the resident cat sits on the bar (and responds to the attentions of passers-by). It is a beautifully observed scene of its time, which is clearly somewhere between 1945 and 1955. And it somehow humanises, and softens, the ‘men behaving badly' sub-plot that gets Falstaff under way.
But what of the singers? Peter Hoare as Dr Caius makes an immediate impression, vigorous, rhythmically precise, with a dark toned tenor that resounds in the Glyndebourne acoustic but is never strident. Alisdair Elliott and Paolo Battaglia are strongly cast as Bardolph and Pistol respectively, singing securely, acting (but not over-acting) the seedy pair of hangers-on who are slowly bleeding Falstaff dry. And then there is Christopher Purves as Falstaff himself. What a debut! The tone is noble, the voice is never stretched, the musical line is simply gorgeous to experience. On the basis of this, his first assumption of the role (Purves previously sang Ford for WNO opposite the Falstaff of a certain Bryn Terfel) I make the confident prediction that Purves will become a leading Falstaff on the world stage over the next ten to fifteen years, so naturally and easily the compass of the role matches his own distinctive vocal range and timbre. He works his socks off, but is totally at ease with the part and gives us a wonderful portrayal.
Not every production will allow Purves to characterise Falstaff as he does here, however. For in this Glyndebourne take on the character, he looks, moves and acts like a post-war retired colonel who has returned to civilian life slightly too old and out of things to resume a useful occupation. There are elements of Captain Mainwaring to the portrayal, a fussy pomposity to the stride and swagger (and Jurowski finds deft and richly comic orchestral details that periodically emphasise the features of the Falstaff that we see before us). This Falstaff takes himself seriously (at least until the final fugue) and invites us to take him seriously too. So Purves gives the ‘honour' aria that concludes scene one the respect it deserves, slightly underplaying the climaxes and making the text all of a piece with the man he is portraying. It is a wonderful vignette.
Then come the chirruping flutes, up to normal speed this time, and it is the turn of the ladies. Ford's villa looks slightly nouveau riche and we are clearly in the back garden, with rows of fully-grown vegetables right across the stage and a series of paths, left to right, that bisect the cabbages and cauliflowers. And to remind us that we are in Windsor, Etonians in their rowing attire periodically cross the stage, carrying their skiffs towards (and back from) the Thames.
I liked the Alice Ford of Dina Kuznetsova: the voice is on the light side, but has natural warmth and her musical phrasing was excellent. Adriana Kucerova as her daughter Nanetta was a knock-out: in her khaki shorts and utility shirt, with sensible shoes and socks, she nonetheless exuded naughtiness and almost at once hit the ethereal heights that this part affords the fine young soprano. Jennifer Holloway as Meg Page sang opposite Kucerova last year at Glyndebourne, playing Hansel to her Gretel. In Falstaff she never put a foot wrong and held all her ensemble lines tightly together, but the part gives any Meg Page few chances to really shine. That honour went to Marie-Nicole Lemieux, looking (and acting) a bit like an ARP warden and bringing Mistress Quickly vividly to life. The voice is truly expressive, there is contralto-ish Heft in the low register and the all round portrayal, as well as appearance, brought constant smiles and plenty of laughs from the audience at all Quickly's great moments. This was a delightful performance.
That leaves Fenton and Master Ford. As Nanetta's suitor Fenton, Bulent Bezduz made a pleasing, athletic impression. If he was neither as ardent or as heroic as other Fentons I have seen in my time, that may have been a directorial choice - I was left with the feeling that maybe his pursuit of Nanetta was a little bit of a service romance: were any GIs stationed near Windsor in the immediate post-war years? No matter, the voice is true and easy and Bezduz made light of the high tessitura passages, reducing in volume and using head voice whenever appropriate. Tassis Christoyannis as Ford was a different matter. In scene two, when most of his singing is in ensemble passages, I wondered slightly about his articulation and the overall strength of his voice. I need not have done: by the time we came to Ford's great moment in Act Two Scene One, the impersonation through gritted teeth of Master Brook and then the huge eruption of rage in the jealousy aria, Christoyannis was in tremendous form: he sang from the heart, as if he meant every word, and his voice had a vibrant baritone ring that I found wholly persuasive.
Falstaff is of course above all an ensemble piece, and the eleventh member of the ensemble is the orchestra, here on fabulous form for the Glyndebourne musical director Jurowski. For such a normally serious conductor, who thinks deeply about the structure of the works with which he engages, the revelation in this production is his impish sense of humour: time after time a tiny orchestral detail was picked out, polished for a second and then dropped back into the endless stream of melody that the octogenarian Verdi conjured up in his last stage work. The playing was always alert, crisp, responsive to the scenario unfolding onstage and supremely musical. In both preparation and execution of this reading of Falstaff, Jurowski has excelled himself. And as he is handed a pint of beer into the left hand, baton poised in the right for the final reprise of tutto nel mondo e burla, and downs it in one, the seal is set on a musical and a dramatic triumph.
It is invidious to pick out individual moments in what is above all a completely rounded, thought-through production but I shall just name a few. Why the cat? Each scene has a cat lurking somewhere onstage, a running gag that works! Why the boys? In the lower strings prelude to Act Three Scene One, three young Etonians in suits and top hats gaze into the orchestra pit and start pointing – out comes a completely soaked Falstaff, hauled over the edge and onto the stage. Why the slap? The line of helpers that come to help Ford search the house for his wife's presumed lover Falstaff stretch right across stage and out of the door. When the leader gets a slap in the face, turns and passes it on, and on right back down the line, there is a great moment when someone outside the house who has seen absolutely nothing is suddenly slapped in the face for no apparent reason! Laugh out loud? You bet. And it all fits the music perfectly.
So, all in all, the complete package. I am sure this will become the Glyndebourne Falstaff for many years to come. It has been the operatic treat of my year so far, and delivered by a work that I thought had long since ceased to surprise me. Long live Shakespeare! Viva Verdi!
Photo Credits: Alastair Muir
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