"In his anniversary year, it is still Viva Verdi! and still a Falstaff that sets the bar for other houses to match".
When Glyndebourne asked Richard Jones to direct a new Falstaff for the Festival four years ago, they must have hoped he would come up with a production worth reviving. And four years later, that is precisely what they have done, in this Verdi anniversary year. I reviewed the original production, which I loved, and described it as a Falstaff that looked wonderful, played absolutely naturally and dazzled musically. If I withhold half a star on this occasion – the opening night and the second night of the 2013 Glyndebourne season – it is because the ensemble work is not yet at the level that it ought to be.
First, a word about the actual production, which came up as witty and as fresh as it did in 2009, only this time with added comic touches. If revival director Sarah Fahie was given carte blanche by Richard Jones to improve on his original, then she has succeeded in spades – this Falstaff elicits smiles, broad grins and laughter throughout. The 1946 look of the streets of Windsor, the shop fronts, the drawing rooms is spot on. The cats that interact with the human characters in every scene are perhaps slightly too well fed for 1946 moggies, but they bring a smile to the face every time. So too do the periodic incursions across the stage of Windsor townspeople, servicemen and GIs in uniform, Etonian rowers, schoolboys and town oiks. I do not recall a town boy last time round aiming his catapault at Falstaff’s capacious bottom as he is hauled out of the orchestra pit at the start of Act Three, but there are myriad little details like this: the great joy of them being that they reflect and complement the music, and not disrupt it. What a glorious sound from the trombones and brass as they play a descending scale to accompany Falstaff’s descent of the Garter stairs, on his way to the assignment with Mrs Ford. What wonderful chirruping from the woodwind as the merry wives patter round their (utility) garden, plotting revenge on the Falstaff who has dared to accost them. The list is long, but the interaction between stage business, characterisation and music is spot on every time. There is some glorious music theatre to be enjoyed here.
The cast is almost entirely new, and if they did not totally eclipse memories of the original singers, they certainly made this Falstaff seem like their own, and there were moments of obvious onstage enjoyment! To start with the ladies: Glyndebourne has assembled a wonderful quartet of young, attractive singers. In the role of Alice Ford, Ailyn Perez made a memorable house debut, singing with assurance, a fabulous sense of melodic line and a full and generous soprano tone. The Glyndebourne acoustic clearly suited her voice – and she can act too. Opposite her, Lucia Cirillo gave an attractive account of Meg Page: her mezzo sound was full and clear and her line in the ensemble passages incisive. If only Verdi had written more for this character! As the wilful daughter Nanetta, Elena Tsallagova was delightful, but somehow slightly characterless. Whether in her khaki shorts and utility shirt, with sensible shoes and socks, or in a succession of attractive summer dresses, she had the physique du role and all the notes that a good Nanetta requires, but she just failed to float those ethereal high notes. Mind you, with singers as young, pretty and fine as Perez and Cirillo playing the next generation up, Tsallagova had her work cut out to steal the show anyway. That honour went to the other end of the vocal scale, to the extraordinarily expressive voice of Susanne Resmark as Mistress Quickly. Her costume, a sort of combination of ARP warden and Brown Owl, is inspired: and Resmark seized every opportunity for comic byplay, both in her interaction with other characters (especially Falstaff) and in her singing. She gave us some wonderful moments.
The revival casting of Graham Clark as Dr Caius gets the evening off to a great start. His predecessor in the role had a dark tenor sound: not so Clark, who is clear, bright and incisive. Colin Judson and Paolo Battaglia (the latter reprising his role from 2009) are evenly cast as Bardolph and Pistol respectively, characterising with flair the seedy pair of hangers-on who are slowly bleeding Falstaff dry. I loved the new Fenton of Antonio Poli. He has a bright, open tenor sound, no signs of stress in the upper tessitura, and he was a delight to listen to throughout. He and Tsallagova made an attractive young pair of lovers.
And so to the two big baritone parts – Master Ford and Falstaff. I wondered if any singer could adequately step into the shoes of Christopher Purves, who made Falstaff such a three-dimensional character all of his own in 2009. I need not have worried: Laurent Naouri is completely different, but gave a great account of the role. Where Purves was mellifluous, Naouri is dark and magnificent. He does not really turn his Falstaff into the Captain Mainwaring, pompous old-style bank manager type but rather into the ‘beached whale’ of a man to which allusion is made in the libretto. Naouri has every vocal attribute that the role requires: a big, very lovely sound, soft singing down to pianissimo, vocal as well as physical agility and nimbleness. He looks much more like a traditional Falstaff too. Naouri gave us a feast of fine singing and fully deserved his huge ovation at the end.
But – and here’s the thing – Naouri was run a close thing on the night by the wonderfully sung Ford of Roman Burdenko. The sound of Naouri and Burdenko repeating each other’s phrases, outdoing each other in (false) conviviality and mateyness in Act Two, Scene One was magnificent. And what a joy to see Ford joining in the general hilarity at the end of the following scene, as Falstaff is tipped into the water! I found Burdenko to be a complete Ford and to have come on vocally out of all recognition since I last heard him.
Finally, the orchestra and the 2013 conductor, Sir Mark Elder. The first thing that surprised me by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was the brightness of the sound they made: anyone going to this Falstaff played on period instruments can forget all thought of a soft, diffuse sound. Indeed, there were many moments in the score when it was quite difficult to say what, exactly, sounded different from the same notes being played by a modern orchestra. But then there were other moments – the scurrying string passages, the plaintive woodwind, the rasping of the brass – that did indeed point up the differences. There were lots of simply lovely orchestral details that I heard in different focus, especially in the inner parts. And there was some lovely orchestral playing tout court. Elder took the score at quite a speed, and took risks: being a first night, they did not always come off. The ensemble passages in Act One Scene Two showed distinct signs of going badly adrift at several points, and the gap between stage and pit yawned alarmingly at such moments. But all the music making was done with such an infectious sense of fun, that one can be forgiving – and these aspects can only improve as the run progresses. The final fugue was much more together than I had feared at half time: and the eruption of laughter and joy at the end told its own story.
So, in his anniversary year, it is still Viva Verdi! and still a Falstaff that sets the bar for other houses to match.
Photo: Tristram Kenton