English National Opera @ Coliseum, London: 15, 21, 23, 28, 30 October; 4, 11, 19 November 2004
The ideal performance of Verdi's Falstaff can make you believe it is his greatest opera.
As his librettist Arrigo Boito said, Falstaff is a "huge burst of laughter", and the most competent conductors bring out the comedy that lies inherently in the music, rather than relying on the director to provide slapstick direction.
The opera also features one of Verdi's most complex characters in the title role.
Falstaff is a saddened, disillusioned, lovable rogue whose mistaken attempt to woo the merry wives of Windsor ends in his double humiliation when he is thrown in the Thames and gulled in the forest of Windsor.
Falstaff is musically perfect, but it has so complex a score that it rarely comes off in the theatre. The LSO's concert performances earlier this year led by Colin Davis were some of the best in living memory, and are now available in a bargain-priced CD on the orchestra's own label. It would be hard to imagine anyone bothering to record ENO's current run of performances, because despite an excellent lead and a couple of superb ensemble singers, this Falstaff lacks musical subtlety on almost every level.
The blame must go largely to Mark Wigglesworth's scrappy conducting. The first act suffered from a sluggish pace, and then as if to make up for lost time the other two acts were too loud and uncontrolled. His Covent Garden Meistersinger was also disappointing in 2002, so one wonders why London's opera companies keep hiring him to conduct the few comic works of composers who are better known for their serious dramatic operas. The beauty of Falstaff ought to lie in the concertato finales, in other words the large-scale scenes which close the acts with several groups of singers and soloists singing contrasting and alternating lines. This was Verdi's inheritance from Rossini, and was brilliant in the hands of Colin Davis and the LSO; Wigglesworth and ENO fail to hint at any of the wittiness of these sections of the score.
Matthew Warchus' production, revived by Ian Rutherford, seems rather small-scale for one of London's largest stages. The sets by Laura Hopkins are handsome and evoke the Elizabethan period well enough, but they rarely make full use of either the width or the depth of the stage. In comparison to the Royal Opera's appalling Graham Vick production, however, ENO wins hands down. The direction was not distracting, if lacking insight at times, and the final scene of Act II, in which Falstaff is ruthlessly deposited in the Thames by Alice and Meg, the merry wives, was extremely funny.
ENO is lucky to have in Alan Opie a three-dimensional and sympathetic Falstaff. Occasionally his vocal reserves were taxed to their outer limit, but in so challenging an opera that is surely forgivable. He rose in particular to the big arias Va, vecchio John and Eh, paggio! with memorable energy and poignancy, and dragged the somewhat sketchy ensemble into second, if not first gear.
There are some works that do not seem suited to being translated into English and I fear this is one of them. With so lavish an orchestration, the words are inaudible most of the time, and one can't help wishing that they would revert to the Italian with surtitles. Ashley Holland's Ford lacked the essential element of jealousy, giving us a stale monologue, È sogno? O realta? (badly translated as "Am I dreaming or is it real?" by Amanda Holden, rather than the more Italianate "Is it a dream? Or reality?")
The women were respectably played by Susannah Glanville (excellent as Alice Ford), Rebecca de Pont Davies (a comic but underpowered Mistress Quickly), Jean Rigby (brilliant as Meg Page) and Gillian Keith (Nannetta), but not even these could save this performance from being a disappointment.
Not the worst Falstaff ever, but buy the LSO's CD for a great rendition of the score.