A strong ensemble cast and a classic production make the second offering of Opera North's autumn 2007 season, Verdi's Falstaff, a feast for the eyes and ears.
Having been impressed with Matthew Warchus' production when it was new in 1997, I was delighted to find that not only has it retained its charm, but in the hands of a revival director (Peter Relton) it has new insights to offer.
Sir John is no bumbling fool in this revival but instead a Knight of the Garter with an aristocratic edge. This matches his music to perfection: Verdi's illustration of the character often involves using an antiquated 'gallant' style to signify his social status. Coupled with a score that also engages with themes of 'learned music' - the concluding double fugue, the 'Amen' in the opening scene, highly contrapuntal concertati - this slightly elevated portrayal of the title character offers a new slant on the production.
Otherwise, the approach is largely straightforward, set in the right period and telling the story as written. But its wit and liveliness are out of the ordinary. Laura Hopkins' designs are imaginative and three-dimensional, presenting the inside of the Inn and Ford's house in detailed box rooms which emphasise the unity of the action and setting, while the transformation of Windsor into the forest in the final act (by revolving the long street of houses and revealing trees, mirrors and lights behind them) is breathtaking. The comedy is powerful without being overplayed. The final scene of Act II is especially amusing, because the business with the basket and the hiding of Nannetta and Fenton underneath the table is well spaced on the stage. How could one fail to laugh when Ford and his henchmen were about to pounce upon Falstaff but find the young lovers there instead? Throughout, truth rather than gimmickry makes for a thrilling evening.
It helps that the cast is mostly outstanding. In fact, Robert Hayward is more than that: you could travel the world and never hope to hear a better sung or acted Falstaff than he offers here in his role debut. The voice is connected and full from top to bottom; he mixes the character's comic and poignant elements; he hints at his swashbuckling youth with a few nifty sword moves; and his diction is clear. It's a travesty that there were so many empty seats in the theatre when his world-class performance was on show for less money than you have to pay for blockbuster musicals in Manchester nowadays.
Equally strong were Susannah Glanville as Alice Ford and Valérie Condoluci (a great find) as her daughter Nannetta. Both had gloriously full tone and strong projection. Deanne Meek (Meg) and Susan Bickley (Quickly) were not perhaps quite as vocally strong, but both threw themselves into the lively ensemble spirit of the production. And Bickley's diction was better than most of her colleagues' in a performance where the text did not always come across very clearly (despite the fact that they were singing in English).
I found Olafur Sigurdarson rather lacking in tone at the top of his voice and he was a rather scruffy figure for Master Ford, but Keith Mills (Bardolph), Andrew Slater (Pistol) and John Graham-Hall (Dr Caius) made an unusually strong team of men. Indeed, the smaller roles were all much more convincingly taken than they were in the previous night's performance of Madama Butterfly and I find the neglect of this excellent Falstaff by the national press somewhat perplexing.
The chorus and orchestra were also in much better form here, singing and playing enthusiastically under Tecwyn Evans. Although some of the ensembles came apart, the delicacy and nuance in most of the orchestral playing was of a very high quality, while the balance of the voices in the choral numbers was excellent.
Sadly, only one performance of this highly entertaining and grossing show remains - Friday 16 November at The Lowry - but if you have the chance to get there, don't hesitate.
Photos: Richard Moran