Not so much cabbages and kings, as cabbages and cats; once more, the ginger pussy is one of the stars of Richard Jones’ 2009 production of Falstaff, faithfully revived here by Sarah Fahie, but it had to compete for the limelight with an exceptional cast and a rare musical treat in the shape of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment playing on period instruments (or faithful copies therof) as would have been heard in Verdi’s time. After last night’s more problematic Ariadne auf Naxos, it came as a relief to be able to enjoy such a straightforward reading of Verdi’s final homage to Shakespeare.
For those of us who actually live in what is often disparagingly called “stockbroker belt mock tudor” the set was a little disconcerting in that it looked pretty much like the view from home (minus the giant cabbages) but the updating to just after the war – when these houses were about twelve years old – worked well in that the obvious echoes of austerity versus excess, and class distinctions versus equality were as much a part of the life of such places as Windsor in 1602 as they were in 1946. The forties frocks, hairstyles and furnishings, as well as the nicely detailed shop fronts all made for a colourful and credible backdrop, although one might just miss a little of the magic which the final scene requires.
Laurent Naouri was a lovable rogue of a Sir John, more garrulous than gruesome, and his precisely enunciated singing – especially in ‘L’Onore! Ladri’ gave constant pleasure. He presents a much more sympathetic Falstaff than, say, Bryn Terfel, and there were moments when you just wanted to smack all those snottily superior skinnies with their mean jibes about his girth. The American soprano Ailyn Pérez, who won the 2012 Richard Tucker prize, was making her Glyndebourne debut as Alice Ford, and her creamy, lustrous tone and confident stage presence were ideally suited to this part, as indeed they would be to any of Verdi’s great lyric soprano roles; expect to hear much more from this already very polished artist.
Amongst a strong supporting cast, three Glyndebourne debutants stood out: the Italian tenor Antonio Poli as a dashing Fenton, Susanne Resmark revealing an opulent mezzo-soprano voice as well as excellent comic timing as Mistress Quickly, and Roman Burdenko presenting a Ford not so much riven by jealousy as pride. Jeremy Bines had done a wonderful job with the chorus, coaxing out some stellar singing, and the assorted Brownies, Eton Scholars and other urchins frisked and gambolled with enthusiasm.
Mark Elder led the OAE in a much lighter, more playful reading of the score than most of us are used to; since the instruments included natural horns and strings strung with animal gut instead of wire it was hardly surprising that there should be a sense of freshness and astringency to the playing, but what was unexpected was how natural, how right it sounded – once the ear was attuned to the less plush, less heavily textured sound, it felt as though you were hearing the music as it was meant to be played. The audience clearly appreciated it, as indeed they did the entire production; if there was just a touch of fantasy missing from the Forest, the lack was forgiven for the heartfelt performance of that wonderful final fugue.