Sunny unseriousness: Falstaff at the ROH
Royal Opera House
Balcony B66, £13, upgraded to Stalls T22
19 July 2018
Opera is a tough sell for summer, city opera anyway, and I always feel Falstaff gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop with its perennial summer slotting. But I can see it makes sense, this performance in particular being suffused with a glow of bonhomie and gaiety I associate with warm weather and the feeling of sun on my skin, regardless of the sweaty reality. The cast looked like they were having a good time, the conductor looked like he was having a good time, even dour-faced Simon Keenlyside looked like he was having a good time. I had a good time. But am I convinced that Verdi’s Falstaff is anything more than a musically rich piece of froth? No.
My friends who like Falstaff tell me that the problem is with Robert Carsen’s production, that the opera’s depths are hidden by the production’s gaudy superficiality. I won’t know until I see another, but while I agree there are issues – most seriously that swathes of the action are invisible to large sections of the house, but also the way that 50s Britain is surely not quite the glamorous coat Carsten seems to want it to be – there are also strengths. Superficial it might be but Paul Steinberg’s sets offer spectacular feasts for the eye, delights that match the music’s radiance. In the luxury of sightlines not being a problem the action across the stage is managed very deftly, responding smoothly to the opera’s quicksilver changes of mood.
Perhaps another element that made me cheered but not charmed by this Falstaff was the cast, all good but none excellent – with the exception of Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly. She is the real deal in contralto terms and it’s just so extremely satisfying to hear that voice type sung with such richness and comfortable ability: a rare breed and one to relish. Otherwise everyone is very genial without knocking it out of the park: Bryn Terfel has a good sound but without the presence I remember of years ago; Ana María Martínez similarly lacks a bit of oomph; Frédéric Antoun I thought would be an ideal Fenton but he doesn’t carry as I hoped he would; similarly Anna Prohaska should be a gift as Nanetta but actually produces quite a white sound, without the spin I expected.
Keenlyside is stronger, albeit with the perpetual frog in his throat, and with his Brilloed hair unsettlingly looked to me like a cross between Benjamin Britten and Richard Nixon – which both in different ways make sense for Ford, I guess. Michael Colvin and Craig Colclough were both superb in the tiny roles of Bardolph and Pistol, and Peter Hoare sounded as ravishing as ever in his handful of lines as Dr Caius.
Universally good singing, attractive set design, cheerful music and even a sunny pint at the interval. I shouldn’t complain.
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