Verdi: Falstaff (in a new version by Tony Britten)

Ian Jervis, Jan Hartley, Julian Forsyth; Music Theatre London  (Signum Vision SIGDVD001)

9 September 2008 1 star

FalstaffOh dear – this is truly awful. But I should start by declaring an interest – an interest in the whole series of fun productions put on by Tony Britten and Music Theatre London at the Drill Hall from the 1990s until now. At the Drill Hall I saw the whole Mozart/da Ponte trilogy as it was staged, and they were all hugely enjoyable. The Marriage of Figaro was also filmed in the theatre and I remember seeing it some years later on the Arte channel: the updating worked and the film was a record of a clearly successful evening of music theatre, complete with audience laughter and interaction between cast and spectators. My personal favourite production was Don Giovanni, with Essex girl and boy Zerlina and Masetto, and with Leporello singing the Catalogue Aria to the strains of his electronic organiser, but what all the shows had in common was pace, theatrical life and genuine humour. They worked – and people flocked to see them.

Falstaff is based on a Drill Hall production of 2005 and was evidently filmed in 2006. But whoever had the idea of taking it on location to a dreary golf course location somewhere in Norfolk ought to be sat down and talked to severely. The resulting DVD is limp, lame, witless and totally lacking in dramatic characterisation and flair. The camera work is amateur, the interior scenes and props threadbare: the feel and look of the whole production takes it into the Confessions of… series of British B movies that have thankfully long since disappeared from our screens. The 'hilarious new English version, shot on and around a golf course', to quote the promotional blurb, is a car crash of a film in which (try hard as I have) I can find no redeeming features.

Well, at the edges perhaps one or two. The reduced orchestration for seven players plus keyboard works absolutely fine, flute (or piccolo), oboe and clarinet often to the fore, and we can hear Verdi's astonishing melodic invention as it unfolds over this most perfect of through-composed operas. So the star goes to a professional group of musicians under music director Jonathan Gill, who play their way competently and accurately through the opera. But the singing is another matter: I winced as I listened to the approximations, the wobbles, the consistent under-pitching of the lead note. Ian Jervis as Falstaff made me actually stop the DVD once or twice, so unbearable was the sound he was making. In a roll call of singing performances that most of the cast would probably far rather forget, I shall single out only Julian Forsyth as Ford, who held his line and had the occasional decent moment, Jan Hartley as Alice, whose sound was at least reliable, and Simon Butteriss as a busy, slightly camp Doctor Caius who wasn't too bad. I draw a veil over Nanetta and Fenton, hoping never to hear their music performed in this way again.

A feature of Tony Britten's updated versions of comic operas has been his deft couplets, that actually make audiences laugh out loud. But I think his touch has deserted him with this version of Falstaff – the sung dialogue is often clunky, the stress in all the wrong places. To take but one example: one of the most miraculous passages in Verdi's score is Falstaff's mini-aria in his big seduction scene with Mistress Ford – 'Quand'ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk'.  The music becomes gossamer light and witty as Falstaff recalls how he was slender and fair, slim enough to slip through a ring. I first heard Tito Gobbi sing this, and marvelled: we are transported to the realms of the imagination as the fat knight sings of his inner imaginings. So what do we have in this version: Falstaff singing 'My heart is fine, I'm like a bloody ox'!  Truly dreadful – and utterly against everything that Verdi's music is saying. I could go on: Mistress Quickly's 'Reverenza', that characteristic, repeated phrase, becomes 'Hello, big boy'. Maybe it got a laugh in the Drill Hall – but preserved on DVD, it is simply embarrassing.

That brings me to the last reason not to buy this DVD. In the accompanying booklet, and in the 'Making of' bonus feature, Tony Britten makes much of the fact that he wanted to give Falstaff the dramatic dimension 'which is all too often lacking in conventional stage relays'. But to do that, you have to have a film director who actually knows how to direct and a cast that is capable of screen acting. It may simply be because this whole production was lip-synched that the entire cast, for most of the time, look like rabbits caught in the proverbial headlights. Of screen acting there is hardly a trace throughout. Bardolph and Pistol look totally uninvolved in anything that is going on, the rest of the cast stand around and lip-synch their lines on cue (mostly) but the action and movement are for the most part laughable. Most of the 'sequences' (if that is not too grand a name for what we see on screen) look as if they have been thought up as we go along. And by the time we get to Herne's oak, I simply cringed at the lack of imagination and the complete and utter lack of visual flair. I have seen that last scene better visualised twenty times in the opera houses of Europe than in this outdoor, location-shot, high definition camera version – simply unbelievable. The fact that the film attracted lottery funding and the backing of the East of England Development Agency and Screen East leaves me shaking my head in wonderment.

Maybe there is scope for a filmed record of Drill Hall performances, with audience, that reflect the vigour and theatricality of the company. But anyone watching this version of Falstaff will be left cold, and perhaps wondering if the company is that good after all. Having seen them in the flesh, I reckon they can be. But this DVD is best forgotten – it does nobody any favours.

By Mike Reynolds

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