Garsington Opera: Falstaff

Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 21 June 2018

If Capriccio had been moved to the period in which it was written, Bruno Ravella’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff takes us to the start of the twentieth century where the women, ever feisty in the first Elizabethan period, are here supports of women’s rights. Setting the second scene on a railway station (in gently caricatured sets by Giles Cadle) was a highly convincing idea given the large amount of movement the scene involves for all the main characters. If the final scene in Windsor forest lacked something of its potential magic its tongue-in-cheek oak leaves gave a fitting surrounding for the final gulling of Falstaff.

The women were the key agents throughout, with Mary Dunleavy dominating as Alice Ford, though ably supported by Victoria Simmonds’ more prim Meg and Yvonne Howard’s tippling Mistress Quickly. Richard Burkhard’s Ford had a touch of nobility about him which made his jealous outrage all the more convincing. He is also man enough to admit his faults and make up quickly. The young lovers, Soraya Mafi’s Nannetta and Oliver Johnston’s Fenton, were strongly cast and gave the impression that theirs was a relationship which really will last.

Henry Waddington’s Falstaff was unexpectedly sensitive. He is fat of course but not excessively so and aware of the implications of his size. Though his voice is not huge he uses it with skill to bring out the more reflective side of the character – a side we do not always see. He can be bluff with his own people – a fine Bardolfo from Adrian Thompson – but has mellowed enough by the end that it makes sense for Ford to invite him to dinner. No longer the rebel outsider, he has been gradually drawn into the family merchants of Windsor.

The chorus don’t have a lot to do but were effective in the last act, though it was a pity no children were involved as fairies. Richard Farnes kept the score moving smoothly and it was a pleasure to welcome back the Philharmonia Orchestra in what we hope has now become a regular summer date.

Garsington Opera: Capriccio

Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Wednesday 20 June 2018

Tim Albery’s strikingly handsome new production moves the setting to the time the opera was first presented – the mid nineteen-forties. However there is no hint of a war in progress, no sense that this is an enclave ignoring a greater reality. For the artists gathered at the home of the Countess all that matters is art, and Richard Strauss explores the purpose of art in a world torn apart by war not through confrontation but the deft interplay of close personal relationships. It is this that makes the work not only such a joy to listen to but avoids any sense that these people are playing irrelevant games while everything else is in chaos. Tim Albery’s production frequently mirrors Die Meistersinger in its insistence on the relevance and importance of the arts to society as a whole. Art may be created in a hot-house atmosphere but it is essential to the whole of society, even if the male servants can’t quite see the point.

Douglas Boyd conducts the score with loving attention to detail and I can’t recall the Garsington Opera Orchestra on better form. The large pit at Wormsley can encompass late romanticism with ease and the outpouring of lush harmonies fill the house.

The young cast bring a sense of reality to the piece which is not always the case. Central to this is Miah Persson’s merry widow, has warmth and wit, gentle humour and glorious tone which carries all before her. Happily the rest of the cast are up to her standards. Sam Furness as composer Flamand is a strong contrast to Gavin Ring’s poet Olivier, and their highly contrasted styles bring clarity to their disagreements. Their rivalry is only topped by Andrew’s Shore earthy La Roche, constantly bringing us all back to the daily realities of the theatre.

The many smaller roles are taken with distinction but one can’t overlook Benjamin Bevan as the stoic Major-Domo who sings nothing until the last few minutes of the evening.

It would be easy to ignore the tiny part of Monsieur Taupe, the prompter, but when Graham Clark brings his years of experience and exemplary diction his brief scene is a memorable delight.