Vaughan Williams’ underrated opera is brought to life in a focused and dynamic staging.
Vaughan Williams’ operas are not performed with anything like the frequency with which their merits deserve. Riders to the Sea may enjoy its fair share of outings, but the performance history of Sir John in Love would seem quite typical for his other creations. Premiering at the Royal College of Music in 1929 and not enjoying its first professional performance (at Sadler’s Wells Theatre) until 1946, its only major UK appearance in recent years was when English National Opera produced it at the Coliseum in 2006.
There is undoubtedly some enthusiasm for his operas, with a widespread feeling, inspired only in part by their ‘rarity value’, that they are something to be cherished. If, however, many are still regarded as ‘flawed masterpieces’, British Youth Opera’s presentation of Sir John in Love at Opera Holland Park reveals how the emphasis should very much be on the second of those two words.
The opera follows the plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor more closely than Verdi’s Falstaff, although that is not necessarily a good thing. One senses that Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito worked to the principle that opera demands the simplification of plot points in order to intensify emotions, since music is better suited to exploring fewer things in more detail. They consequently consolidated more around the Ford family so that while in the original Falstaff has his liaison with Mistress Ford, it is Mistress Page’s daughter who everyone wishes to marry. By making this Mistress Ford’s daughter as well, Ford could be both suspicious of his wife and dictatorial towards his daughter, negating any need for the character of Mistress Page’s husband. Similarly, by giving the daughter two suitors rather than three, things were simplified as Dr Caius ‘doubled’ as the person who Falstaff’s henchmen robbed, and Abraham Slender and a host of other subsidiary characters were eliminated altogether.
In contrast, Vaughan Williams, who wrote the libretto himself by working from the play, retains everyone, and it creates a rather confusing opening as Justice Shallow and Parson Evans appear and we have to get our head around who is who as much as with who has done what. Once this initial hurdle is overcome, however, the story becomes easy to follow, aided by the clarity that this production brings to the proceedings, and Vaughan Williams’ approach has the advantage of retaining parity across the Merry Wives of Windsor so that Mistress Page is not reduced to being a relative bit player.
Harry Fehr’s production is seemingly simple and yet highly intelligent and effective. In Nate Gibson’s set, the main stage is divided into three areas by way of two small diagonal walls whose windows mirror those seen in the ruins of Holland House that form a backdrop to the stage. The three areas represented in Acts I and II are broadly the bar at the Garter Inn, the lounge there and Dr Caius’ surgery. However, the first two can double for a variety of spaces demanded by the drama while more intimate encounters, such as liaisons between Anne Page and Fenton, or Ford’s meeting in disguise with Falstaff, often take place on the part of the stage that stands in front of the orchestra.
“There is undoubtedly some enthusiasm for his operas… they are something to be cherished”
The clever thing is that as we watch the main action occur in the central area, activity can be witnessed in each of the rooms to the left and right such as Caius and Evans training separately for their duel (which in this instance becomes a boxing match). The three rooms are represented entirely through props rather than heavy sets, and every time there is a scene change two of the three areas are literally swapped over so that the main action always takes place in the central space. As a result, because there are multiple changes, over time Dr Caius’ surgery ends up moving from stage left to stage right.
The chosen setting of the 1950s works well for a variety of reasons. The period is recent enough to possess a certain air of familiarity, and yet still historical enough to largely retain the class systems and hierarchies that were at play in the original. In addition, while the Shakespeare is nominally set in the early 15th century, to tie in with the Henry IV plays, it generally implies the then contemporary setting of the final years of Elizabeth I’s reign. As a result, there is a pleasing symmetry in choosing to set it during the first decade of Elizabeth II’s own.
The music is pure Vaughan Williams in all its glory and variety. So many lines and motifs feel familiar, yet in terms of style these cover quite a range of his output in their own right. There is also much cleverness and humour on display. When Mistresses Page and Ford first become aware they have received the same letter one reads from their’s and the other repeats each line, which could pass for a standard technique in vocal writing, and yet here reveals that they are reading exactly the same thing. The score includes English folk tunes, and hearing ‘Greensleeves’ as Mistress Ford supposedly eggs Falstaff on feels slightly tongue-in-cheek on the composer’s part as the thickness of the seduction and intrigue feels at odds with the sense of purity we might normally associate with the song. While far from replicating ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla’ that ends Verdi’s Falstaff, as we stare at the eight (rather than ten) main principals confronting us at the end with everyone else behind, it is hard not to think that Vaughan Williams was giving just a small nod to that.
The cast is excellent, with several performances standing out in particular. In the title role, Johannes Moore has just the right Falstaffian presence, demeanour and swagger as he asserts his baritone to excellent effect. Alexandria Moon, Eva Gheorghiu and Nancy Holt offer highly accomplished performances as Mistresses Ford, Page and Quickly respectively while Grace Marie Wyatt and Steven van der Linden establish great rapport as Anne Page and Fenton as their voices, despite feeling quite different in nature, work very well together. Jacob Bettinelli is tremendous as Frank Ford, as his superb bass-baritone comes to the fore, while other notably strong performances come from Jack Holton as George Page and Justin Jacobs as Dr Caius. Joshua Saunders as Shallow, James Micklethwaite as Slender, Matthew Bawden as Simple, Armand Rabot as Pistol, Phillip Costovski as Bardolph, Toki Hamano as Nym, Emyr Lloyd Jones as Evans, Edward Kim as Rugby and Patrick Owston as The Host of The Garter Inn all play their parts to the full.
While the production possesses energy in abundance, even more impressive perhaps is the fact that it never throws too much at scenes. The ‘showdown’ in Windsor Forest is consequently as notable for its management and control as its dynamism so that the haunting and comical elements prove particularly effective because they feel so perfectly pitched. Marit Strindlund’s conducting of the Southbank Sinfonia is also excellent and the end result is an evening that, thanks to Vaughan Williams’ music and wit and the strength of the performances on offer, cannot fail to leave a smile on one’s face.
• Several principal roles are double cast over the course of the run, with Conrad Chatterton playing Falstaff on 25 and 27 August.
• For further details on British Youth Opera and its upcoming events visit its website.
• Details of Opera Holland Park’s 2023 season will appear soon on its website.