Usually when I’m reviewing an opera I like to mull it over for a while, sleep on it, get to the heart of what it said and what it left me with. Not tonight. Tonight I’m writing the review on my phone on the train on my way home. That’s because what the Royal Opera’s Falstaff left me with was something very simple indeed. That’s a good thing and we’ll come to what it was later.
But first, the things any review of Falstaff will tell you; that it was Verdi’s last opera and only his second comedy and that it’s very much an ensemble piece. All of which is true. The ensemble nature of the opera is perhaps its strongest feature, although it also presents something of a challenge as there are few typical arias or duets. Thankfully Verdi’s sense of pace, developed over a long career setting drama to music, keeps things fizzing along and, in the right hands, and with a good cast, it’s a great opera.
This is most definitely a good cast. That’s not to say there aren’t some fine individual performances, but they’re all in the service of the action. Ana Maria Martinez is an engaging, very watchable Alice and she’s backed up by equally fine performances from Marie McLaughlin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Meg and Mistress Quickly. Simon Keenlyside as Ford is also a great bit of casting – I never tire of watching him. But it’s Bryn Terfel who, quite rightly, steals the show in the title role. Terfel has an unparalleled ability to give colour to the text he’s singing. He can sing the same word three times and give it a different meaning each time. There’s nuance, confidence and, best of all, a real generosity to his performance. It’s wonderful to watch.
It would be tempting, given what’s going on in the country, to try and draw some parallels between the opera and the wider world. There are certainly enough self-interested, pompous men on the world stage right now that you could probably chuck a dart and stand a decent chance of hitting a strong comparison. But the thing I took away from this production of Falstaff is simply this – sometimes it’s more than enough just to be entertained and not look for, or need, anything more. In fact, as applause rang round the Royal Opera House at the end, it occurred to me I’ve probably never seen an opera audience so clearly happy to have been simply entertained. It’s a joyous thing.
Falstaff at Royal Opera House until 21 July 2018. Production images by Catherine Ashmore. For more information and tickets please visit the website.