Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, shows a wit and zest for life that perhaps you wouldn’t expect from a nigh on eighty-year-old composer who had already penned twenty-seven masterpieces, yet it proved a fine way to bid farewell to an appreciative public; the crowning glory of a career spanning over half a century and setting him as the indisputable king of Italian opera.
The lightness of touch in Verdi’s third Shakespeare’s adaptation, (Falstaff being the retelling of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV parts I and II) is a world away from his previous incarnations of The Bard, Macbeth (1847) and Otello (1887) and it was Arrigo Boito’s irresistible libretto that persuaded him to conduct an altogether different homage to England’s greatest writer, which in turn became one of his most revered works. Falstaff is the glorious result of Verdi’s determined proclamation to Boito, “After having relentlessly massacred so many heroes and heroines, I have at last the right to laugh a little.”
We are immediately enthralled by the suitably gregarious Kent-born bass-baritone Henry Waddington as loveable rogue Sir John Falstaff, whose irrepressibly blase attitude towards drink and women is sure to have you weeping with laughter. Doctor Caius (Colin Judson) complains to Falstaff that his unruly companions, Bardolfo (Adrian Thompson) and Pistola (Nicholas Crawley) have made him drunk and robbed him – cue pockets being turning out and an unhappy landlord who presents a substantial bill.
This season’s new Garsington production, directed by the acclaimed Bruno Ravella, is driven by Waddington’s larger than life, yet surprisingly sensitive performance, delivering rich vocals and an equally sumptuous portrayal of one of the best loved characters in both Shakespeare and the opera repertoire. Updated to the early years of the 20th century, with a strong feminist emancipation angle (complete with placards) that both fits well within the plot and gives the ladies of the tale the last laugh in a clever new way. When Falstaff, in a cunning plot to seduce two women, Alice Ford (the superb Mary Dunleavy) and Meg Page (Victoria Simmonds), the wives of wealthy Windsor gentleman, he makes the mistake of writing the same love letter to both, thereby revealing his poorly devised strategy.
To further complicate matters, Falstaff’s false friends, Bardolfo and Pistola inform Alice’s husband, Ford (Richard Burkhard) of his scheme and he intends to test his wife’s faithfulness. With the assistance of Mistress Quickly (Yvonne Howard), who lures Falstaff to a rendezvous, Alice and Meg soon run rings around the tartan-kilt wearing reprobate, and the score, with Richard Farnes conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, is a sprightly partner to the frothy, highly comic lyrics, sung here in the original Italian.
The cardboard set design by Giles Cadle is simple yet extremely effective, taking us from the opening scene at a Windsor inn, to a railways station and the drawing room where the women manage to manoeuvre Falstaff into a wicker laundry basket. To illustrate him being plunged into the Thames, he is tipped out of the basket and down a trap door, the largess of his exuberant figure being hurled anywhere being a sight for sore eyes, with the ensuing rush of water ejected following his disappearance a moment of sheer delight for the audience. Regardless of his faults, we can’t help feeling a little bit sorry for him, yet never too sorry. As the opera concludes, ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla”, all the world is a joke.
With strong performances by Judson as Dr Caius and Oliver Johnston as Fenton, Ford’s daughter Nannetta’s (Soraya Mafi) lover, as ever, the setting of Garsington Opera, a stylish contemporary opera house within the impressive Wormsley Estate in Buckinghamshire, is a magical venue for an evening of quality music, with consistently well cast and directed productions attracting aficionados from far and wide. This Falstaff, coming just before a new 1950s-set production at the ROH by Robert Carsen, is a jubilant example of Garsington at its best. 2019 marks Garsington Opera’s landmark 30th anniversary, so I’m expecting even more fireworks next year.
Falstaff at Garsington Opera on selected dates until 22 July 2018, The Wormsley Estate, Stokenchurch, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Production images by Clive Barda. For more information and tickets, or to review the announced 2019 programme please visit the website.