With this Glyndebourne production of Verdi's final masterpiece, Falstaff, Richard Jones's unique directorial style – sometimes astringent, never dull – finds a magnificent partner. Widely praised when it was unveiled at the start of the 2009 festival (reviewed by MusicalCriticism.com here), and subsequently taken on tour, this Opus Arte DVD allows those who missed it to see what the fuss was all about. More importantly, it simply gives us an opportunity to see Falstaff staged with a mischievous, light touch that brings out all its humour, even if it is sometimes, arguably, at the expense of some of its touching wisdom.
Star of the show is, rightly, Christopher Purves, whose position as one of Britain's finest operatic baritones has now been cemented through a string of high-profile successes, several of them significantly in collaboration with Jones (one thinks of his WNO Wozzeck, as well as his Tonio – or Tony – in ENO's recent Cav & Pag). Here he is suitably beefed out in costume, but fleshes out Shakespeare's rotund knight with a faultless comic touch, singing the role with humour and suave vocalism.
Jones' production – in characteristically sharp and stylish designs by Ultz – is a very British affair, with more than a hint of Carry-On. Updated to Windsor in war-time, the Garter inn is half baronial hall, half pub, with Falstaff himself plonked in the centre as inept master of ceremonies. The second scene takes place between immaculately planted cabbages. Mistress Quickly seems to have become a warden of some sort, while Fenton appears in a natty uniform. This is an updating, however, that is applied as a delicate veneer, throwing up only beautifully observed details – a plump cat watching each scene with feline disapproval, for example – without any of the awkward shoe-horning that is often required. I felt that the final scene bordered on being rather too chaotic, with the cast having seemingly raided the local fancy-dress shop for Halloween costumes, but that is a minor complaint among so much that is so successful.
Typically for Glyndebourne, the acting is of the very highest quality, and Jones has directed a talented cast with precision. Purves is in excellent company, then, with Peter Hoare and Paolo Battaglia making a high-quality pair as Caius and Pistol. Tassis Christoyannis is an excellent Ford, too, his virile baritone making a fine impression. As his wife, Dina Kuznetsova matches him well, and the rest of the ladies are near ideal. The ever-charming Adriana Kučerova could have been born to play Nanetta and sings with sweet, easy tone, while Marie-Nicole Lemieux makes a fruity, very funny Quickly. Jennifer Holloway as Meg completes the team in style, while Bülent Bedüz is an easy-going Fenton.
It's not surprising that Vladimir Jurowski turns in a young man's account of the score, which is bracingly vivid and alive, and he is clearly enjoying himself with Verdi's various effects. It's an interpretation that will no doubt mellow but, with excellent playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, he contributes brilliantly to the performance's general joie de vivre. Overall, some might long for a bit more nostalgia and gentleness, both in terms of playing and production, to fit in with the work's status as the final masterpiece of an old man. However, no one could doubt that Verdi would approve such an eminently funny and entertaining account of the work. With Opus Arte's first-class presentation, this is a highly recommended release.
By Hugo Shirley