***** (5 stars)
Opera Comes Alive Again!
A LIVE performance – oh what heaven! Yes, we were effectively outdoors [though under a pretty effective ‘roof’] but there were real singers on stage, a real [socially-distanced and slightly uncomfortably-seated] audience [remember to bring a cushion, friends!] and a real orchestra – admittedly, sitting apart from us in the rehearsal studio itself, but through the wonders of technology everything happened together, and OPERA CAME ALIVE AGAIN…
Verdi used Shakespeare’s play as the basis for his opera. The ageing Sir John, former best buddy of Prince Hal, is in somewhat reduced circumstances now that King Henry V has dropped him: but he still fancies his chances with the ladies. He sends love letters to the lovely Alice, wife of Ford, and to Meg Page. In both he proclaims his undying devotion and seeks an assignation: but alas, his page Robin delivers each [identical] letter to the wrong lady…
Alice and Meg, together with Alice’s daughter Nannetta and Mistress Quickly, plot Falstaff’s undoing. Ford is told that he is about to be cuckolded by Sir John and plots an elaborate revenge, only to be foiled by the ladies who decide to take matters into their own hands and also ensure that Nannetta be saved from a forced marriage to Dr Caius and instead weds her sweetheart, Fenton. Falstaff’s long-standing partners in crime, Bardolph and Pistol, switch allegiance and join with the plotters, with hilarious results – but at the end of the opera everyone is prepared to forgive, and join in a chorus exclaiming that life is a burst of laughter, be happy hereafter and laugh at our sorrow.
The production is shared with the Santa Fe Opera, whose theatre has double doors that can be opened to frame the desert sunset as a backdrop to the action: here in Glasgow they opened to a backdrop of trees which both hid the unmistakably urban setting of the rehearsal studio and was particularly effective for Windsor Great Park scene with its rather strange but undeniably effective great, ruined, Herne’s Oak.
The set had a superb bridge spanning the stage, with the space below it amply large enough to accommodate Falstaff’s gargantuan bed or the interior of Ford’s house. Multi-branched staircases allowed the cast to move freely so that one scene flowed into another, and one ‘faction’ among the cast could eavesdrop comfortably on another, while giving ample scope for virtually the whole cast to rush around wildly in Ford’s house as the household searched for the amorous intruder.
Further joy came from the fabulous costumes – the wardrobe department must have gone into ecstasies on being asked to produce elaborate and brightly-coloured gorgeous 17th century Cavalier costumes [and not just for the women!]. Even Ford and Dr Caius’ black and white costumes were dripping with lace, forming a strong contrast to the Puritan severity of Fenton’s black and white outfit [was that why Ford didn’t want his daughter to marry him?]. Falstaff’s bed-gown and giant fur-collared over-robe were deeply impressive – and as for the stunning effect of his ‘I’m going courting’ outfit: utterly magnificent, and worn with such panache!
Roland Wood / Falstaff’s voice was huge and powerful, matching his enormous personality; he was still vigorous despite his advancing age, and showed the greatness of his heart that, after all the indignities he suffered, he was able to laugh at himself and invite his antagonists to join in the final burst of laughter.
Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Alice, Sioned Gwen Davies’ Meg, Gemma Summerfield’s Nannetta and Louise Winter’s Mistress Quickly were a strong quartet of women, refusing to be manipulated by their menfolk, and determined neither to be taken advantage of nor to be oppressed. Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s gentle and lyrical Fenton was in strong contrast to Phillip Rhodes’ fiery and autocratic Ford, refusing to consider that his wife would not give in to the advances of a would-be seducer but happy to give his own daughter in marriage to a grey-haired, slimy, Malvolio-like sycophant [Aled Hall as a brilliantly repulsive Dr Caius].
Jamie MacDougall’s very Scottish, kilted and bonneted Bardolph and Alastair Miles’ lanky and lugubrious Pistol were splendid comic relief, [with Jamie MacD’s fabulous pantomime dame act at the end milking it for all it’s worth] – so funny that it could have been easy to overlook the excellence of their singing. All in all, a superb cast, rightly dominated by the magnificent Roland Wood.
David McVicar has, as always, created a production that tells the story clearly while also bringing out extensive detail in individual characterisations – not least in the excellent work of the non-singing actors Lauren Ellis-Steele, Jamie Francis, Caleb Hughes, Josh Kiernan, Allan Othenio and Sally Swanson]. He also designed this excellent production – and the extraordinary collection of ‘creatures’ which appear to torment Falstaff in the final act are reason alone to see this work.
Amanda Holden’s translation is good and entertaining – though as ever, fitting English to notes written for Italian lyrics does not always serve the melody. Derek Clark was conducting the orchestra away to our left in the main rehearsal building: he did an outstanding job of keeping it all together [how they did it I have no idea – more technical wizardry that we come to take for granted]. Scottish Opera’s orchestra played as brilliantly as ever and were rightly greeted with whoops and cheers as they emerged to take their own [masked and distanced] applause at the end of the show.
Above all, there was the sheer joy of being in a live audience, with live performers who were obviously all relishing being back on stage with us. Performances in Glasgow continue till 17 July: if you’ve not managed to see it, make sure you book for the Edinburgh performances as part of the International Festival!
Scottish Opera Rehearsal Studios 15 July 2021 – till 17 July, Run Ended , Reopens for Edinburgh International Festival at the Festival Theatre, 8th – 14th August for tickets go to: https://www.eif.co.uk/events/falstaff