Opera on stage
Glyndebourne, May 24
Falstaff is never easy. This much was obvious even from those celebratory, dutifully ecstatic but almost uniformly non-comprehending reviews of the premiere in fin de siècle Milan. It’s wonderful, of course: perfectly chiselled, supremely inventive; but the perfection and invention make hard listening (until you know it well), and even harder performing. And then there’s the baggage. The ‘last work’ baggage, with old Verdi staring out at us serenely from those faded photos, telling us—repeatedly—that he wrote the opera not for theatres but for ‘his own pleasure’; and, for English-speaking audiences, the Shakespeare baggage—the fat knight, the Elizabethan glory days. No performance could possibly evade all this, especially not at Glyndebourne of all places, but Richard Jones and Vladimir Jurowski nevertheless do something extraordinary with the opera.
On the directorial side, the essential decision was to update the action. We are in Windsor, 1946 (or thereabouts). The Garter Inn is a dingy local pub in which Falstaff puffs on ciggies and noisily types his carbon-copied love letter; Ford’s house is in well-heeled suburbia, with tidy frontage (mock-Tudor, of course), chintzy furniture and a garden in which rows of cabbages are arranged with military precision (the Fords are still, it seems, digging for victory). Ford senior is a city type, Fenton a young GI on the make, Caius a mortar-boarded, begowned schoolmaster (perhaps from a famous nearby school?). Quickly—a superb comic creation—amply proportioned and tightly packed into military uniform, is Hattie Jacques incarnate.
As with all such updatings, there are inevitably losses. Much of the opera’s torrent of verbal detail (Boito was inordinately, some think damagingly fond of parading Elizabethan ‘local colour’) comes across as—to be kind—unlikely, and there are larger anachronisms such as the small army of servants at the Ford household’s beck and call. More serious, though, was the challenge of what to do with the final scene in Windsor Great Park, whose midsummer night’s dream-gone-wrong seems to demand a belief in the supernatural quite different from that circulating in postwar Windsor. Jones expended some energy building a rationale for this scene, not least in peopling preceding tableaux (and even the moments before curtain-up) with a trio of Brownies who, with a little help from their friends and the local magic shop, eventually transform into elfish and other ancestors. But, even with these visual prompts, what should have been the scenic climax of the opera came across as rather dull and cluttered, perhaps in need of further attention.
For the rest, though, the control of gesture and detail in this most gesture- and detail-packed opera was well-nigh faultless, and owes a great deal to the fresh resonances that Jones’s new period stimulated. The big set-pieces at the ends of Acts 1 and 2 were masterpieces of traffic control around the Fords’ tidy, regimented lives, with tremendous energy and movement skilfully married to respect for the ferocious, unprecedented demands for musical ensemble. No less inventive were the more intimate scenes. Falstaff’s interviews with Quickly, and his attempted seduction of Alice, were minutely choreographed, with terrific comic timing and acute musical awareness at every turn. Falstaff circa 1946 is of course less obviously colourful and exotic than in his Elizabethan manifestation; but this relative restraint and closeness-to-home not only made him more believable, but imbued him with an understated and slightly sinister charm. In the seduction scene, for example, there was comedy to burn, but there was also an ‘edge’: Alice escaped with honour intact, but she in the process found that this Falstaff was lighter, much lighter on his feet than she expected.
None of this invention would have made an impression without a team of first-rate singing actors: musicians flexible enough to put across Jones’s complex comic business while dealing with the demands of Verdi’s rapid declamation and also—lest we forget—having the vocal heft to project over his sizeable orchestra. Even the smaller parts count vitally, as demonstrated by Peter Hoare (Caius), Alasdair Elliott (Bardolph) and Paolo Battaglia (Pistol), who launched the first scene with uncommon brio and musical precision. Equal to them in all respects were the ‘ladies’ team’ (1946 parlance is catching): Dina Kuznetsova was an exceptional Alice, having all the notes for the role and also proving herself more than equal to its histrionic demands; Marie-Nicole Lemieux was born for this conception of Quickly, with an ideal physical presence, remarkable gestural expressivity and a trademark collection of booming chest notes; and Adriana Kuˇcerová sang every bit as beautifully as the part of Nannetta demands. Bülent Bezdüz was a plausible and lyrically assured Fenton, although perhaps rather underpowered (we might recall that Verdi’s first Fenton created Rodolfo in La Bohème only three years later); Tassis Christoyannis as Ford, occasionally uncertain in ensembles, rose to the considerable occasion of his great Act 2 jealousy aria.
In spite of all this sterling service, two characters inevitably and quite properly dominated. One was Christopher Purves, whose Falstaff was a magnificent, dramatically mercurial presence throughout. Whatever he was doing—wielding the nose-hair clipper with rhythmic elan, mincing down the stairs in his ‘seduction kit’ of scoutmaster shorts, ruefully inspecting his grizzled man-boobs as he contemplated mortality—Purves had the shape of the part and sang forth its many moods with unfailing generosity. As always with this most exigent and controlled of operas, though, the alternative protagonist was the conductor. Jurowski clearly knows the score intimately, and drew a constantly shifting web of alluring sound from the London Philharmonic, keeping the grand climaxes within reach of the singers, controlling the ensembles with an iron hand, coaxing enchanting pianissimos. The fact that he joined the principals in downing a swift pint, seconds before wrapping up the fugue, was just one last virtuoso gesture. This Falstaff, both classic and iconoclastic, is bound to return to Glyndebourne; start angling for a ticket as soon as you can.
(c) ROGER PARKER