Review: ‘Falstaff’ at Garsington Opera

Set in the late Victorian era, this production of Verdi’s opera has a superb cast and laugh-out-loud moments

Henry Waddington in the title role of ‘Falstaff’, Garsington Opera 2018. Photograph: Clive Barda

Bruno Ravella’s good-looking and genuinely funny production of Verdi’s late masterpiece, Falstaff, for Garsington Opera, proved the perfect accompaniment for a Summer Solstice evening spent in the peculiar magic of the deep English countryside. Garsington can probably afford to ease up on the new productions (everything is new this year): given Thursday night’s reception, they can revive this Falstaff any time they want.

Victoria Simmonds (Meg) and Mary Dunleavy (Alice Ford) in ‘Falstaff’, Garsington Opera 2018. Photograph: Clive Barda

Adapted from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, the staging is updated to about the time of the opera’s composition in 1893 – we’re still in Windsor but the look is late Victorian. Swords are replaced by cricket bats, mutton-chopped swells smoke cigars and the kids wear Eton collars.

Sir John Falstaff, played by Henry Waddington, is a decaying old soldier down on his luck, squeezed into his regimental tartan trews, and later, to great hilarity, his youthful parade ground kilt. The setting and lack of swashbuckling make his money-making scheme to seduce two townswomen seem all the more sleazy – and given that the women are, in this instance, temperance-espousing suffragettes, all the more doomed to failure. His target, the well-heeled (and married) Alice Ford, is sung and played with exquisite sound and wit by Mary Dunleavy. Alice’s accomplice in feminist revenge, Meg Page, is taken with great comedic skill by the mezzo Victoria Simmonds. Waddington’s Falstaff is rich in pathos and comes into his own the worse things go for him. (His emergence out of the Thames after his ducking is particularly affecting). His unreliable myrmidons, Pistol and Bardolph, are played by the veteran tenor Adrian Thompson and the bass-baritone Nicholas Crawley. Looking like something out of Ripper Street, they soon rat him out to Alice Ford’s husband, who is thrillingly sung by Richard Burkhard, his cuckold’s monologue in Act 2 particularly impressive.

Yvonne Howard (Mistress Quickly), Henry Waddington (Falstaff) and Victoria Simmonds (Meg) in ​‘Falstaff’, Garsington Opera 2018. Photograph: Clive Barda

The scene in which Ford rumbles Sir John’s attempts on his wife brought the house down with many high jinks, involving as it did the creation of a trail of dynamite to demolish a hiding place. His inept ally and wannabe son-in-law Dr Caius is played by the excellent character tenor Colin Judson, who along with Yvonne Howard, as Mistress Quickly, completes a superb roster of supporting players. The young lovers are the extremely promising tenor Oliver Johnston (singing with genuine Italianate sound) and Soraya Mafi, whose Act 3 aria is a delight. Greg Cadle’s sets amuse with an almost Terry Gilliam-inspired cartoon foliage for Windsor Park and a cut-out steam engine pushed onto the stage in Act One. The former music director of Opera North, Richard Farnes, conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra, each passage joyfully sketched out with character and attention to detail. A triumph for the company and all concerned.

Henry Waddington in the title role of ‘Falstaff’ with the company, Garsington Opera 2018. Photograph: Clive Barda

‘Falstaff’ is in repertory at Garsington Opera until 22 July.

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