Verdi’s Falstaff is quite a tricky work to produce well and Opera Holland Park’s production proved that beyond a measurable doubt. It’s delicate blend of music and poignant—though, certainly at times, irreverent—perspective of the human condition ("Tutto nel mondo é burla") are a hallmark of Verdi’s final stroke of genius.
The set for Opera Holland Park's new production, designed by Nicky Shaw, certainly served its purpose: each structure could be turned around to reveal interiors, all decorated in contemporaneous décor. However, I felt that the brown Smurf houses didn’t quite fit with what I am presuming was supposed to be 1940s Anglican England.
As for the performers, Olafur Sigurdarson was a perfect incarnation of the title role: his Falstaff is a mix between a fat Beetlejuice (à la Michael Keaton) and a drunk Captain Jack Sparrow (à la Jonny Depp). Not only could he inhabit the character’s body physically, but also vocally—despite a few pressed and unfocused moments—he was able to communicate all the regrets and bitter humor of an old, dirty, pervert. It was simply fantastic.
Christopher Turner was an acceptably irate Dr. Caius, while Brian Galliford and Simon Wilding played lackluster sidekicks and co-conspirators: their interpretations of Bardolfo and Pistola respectively often seemed too sloppy musically and underdeveloped dramatically to be truly effective or believable.
Of course Annilese Miskimmon’s direction influenced all three characterizations; I’ve never seen a production of Falstaff where so many actors continuously dropped to the floor (none more often that Falstaff himself), often without clear motivation. There were moments when the blocking seemed very natural, but dare I say that we get it: all three are drunkards (yet surely there is a better way to convey this other than consistent slapstick humor?). The tug of war in Act III was a clever touch, however, and kudos go to the entire ensemble for singing the difficult fugue whilst so active.
The main trio of merry wives was also disappointingly inconsistent. As Alice, Linda Richardson ran the gamut from excellent to acceptable, while Carolyn Dobbin, as Meg, played her role with just enough vivacity to convince. Carole Wilson was a bit too prude as Mistress Quickly, but very funny nonetheless; of course, her vocal repetitions of "Povera donna" could have been milked a bit more.
As the lovers Nanetta and Fenton, Rhona McKail and Benjamin Hulett were mostly convincing dramatically, but both proved to be a bit too naïve in their vocal interpretations of Verdi’s self-parodying love theme. Coming as it does on the heels of Otello, in which the "Kiss Theme" plays such a significant dramatic role, the scenes between the two should always have a hint of ham to them, and this was lost amidst the wash of all-too-serious pining. Both have big voices and both shined in their respective arias, but they nevertheless needed to commit to all their phrases and sing with noticeably more style, lest their interpretations seem underdeveloped and under sung.
As Ford, Geroge von Bergen gave Sigurdarson as run for his money as the evening’s most successful bass-baritone; his aria "E sogno" was a masterful representation of momentary madness and was sung—with his big, syrupy voice—equally as well.
Despite the two baritones’ success, one must ask why this production fell so flat musically? Whenever this question arises, the signers must take some of the responsibility, but often the finger is wagged inevitably at the conductor, and in this case, it’s well deserved. Peter Robinson’s conducting was uninspired throughout, and although the orchestra did its best, there were too many moments when it unquestionably overpowered the singers, was quite noticeably sluggish, and risked poor intonation indeed.
Overall then, Opera Holland Park’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff is somewhat of a mixed bag: in some respects very well done and, in others, not.
Photo credit: Fritz Curzon