Such are the ironies in life that I can own up to the fact that my introduction to Falstaff came from its use as background music being listened to by John Thaw , musing morosely into a glass of whisky in his Oxford flat during an episode of Inspector Morse.
The phrase that caught my attention then was the gorgeous soprano line Alice Ford unfurls with mischievous and seductive sparkle in the second scene.
Just a line then, but the whole opera abounds in lustrous melodic ideas that are heard, fleetingly, for a moment or two memorable phrases, rather than complete arias, which grow naturally in a line or two before giving way to something else. This is Verdi at his most musically sophisticated, a distillation of his creative invention, unrepetitive spontaneity and freshness.
Sadly, this Glyndebourne on Tour revival by Sarah Fahie of the production by Richard Jones earlier this year is not perfect, although there’s plenty to admire in the performances. Set in home counties Windsor sometime soon after the Second World War, The Garter is a mock-Tudor pub on the High Street, sandwiched between shops advertising “Bridal Wear” and “Jokes” which point to the dual themes of Verdi’s romantic comedy a bit of saucy naughtiness meets middle class bourgeois rectitude.
From the explosive opening chord it’s like jumping on board a moving bus. You’re straight into the Garter, mid action, virtually mid sentence, Falstaff bashing away at an old Remington, running off carbon copy billets-doux with the aim of swiving the wealthier wives of Windsor and replenishing his dwindling wallet – which is being slowly leeched by his seedy hangers-on, Bardolph and Pistol.
Jonathan Viera’s vigorous portrayal is not of a bloated bibulous figure of fun, but a double-breasted, Prince of Wales check, Robert Maxwell, hustler and schemer who is sufficiently vain and conceited to think he cuts a fine dash in a safari suit (with cravat, of course) in which to go a-wooing. But Viera is totally at ease with the part and gives a wonderful portrayal of rascality and epicurean delight in life’s pleasures as well as the pathos of a stud who realises he’s past his prime, sodden wet after being dumped in the Thames, grumbling at the wickedness of the world “mondro ladro, mondro rubaldo”. It’s a class act and his presence dominates.
The rest of the cast varied somewhat, but most gave decent if somewhat solid peformances: Elena Tsallagova’s sweet voiced Nannetta flirting with Fenton, Jessica Muirhead as Alice Ford providing ample vocal enticement to Sir John and Kathleen Wilkinson’s Mistress Quickly in khaki uniform and sensible shoes had straight-backed charm and still offered layers of comedy and depth of character.
Nicholas Phan’s Fenton was sensitive but he had the weakest voice in the cast: his solo “Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola” at the beginning of the third act had me wincing and unfortunately was the forerunner of worse to come with inept direction and handling in the final taunting scene which seemed to be just the unpleasantly random milling about of a bunch of people at a ghost-themed fancy dress party with the music turned up and the lights off.
The set designs by Ultz are sparse, chocolate box modernism but work well and there are clever visual gags which are repeated like Wagnerian leitmotifs the three Brownies (so that’s why Mistress Quickly is in uniform Brown Owl), a cat makes an appearance in each act, and an Etonian rowing crew periodically tramp across set, up and down to the river.
And if there was a musical leitmotif that the octogenarian Verdi conjured up from the endless stream of melody in his final stage work it is the refrain sung three times by Fenton and Nanetta: “Bocca bacciata no perde ventura, Anzi vinnova con fa la luna” amidst the sweet-nothings, the embodiment of renewal. And there it was again at the end, old Verdi wistfully bidding us and his last opera farewell by marrying the young couple stepping aside to so that Spring can come round again.