Falstaff

Verdi
Garsington Opera
Garsington Opera House
to

We’re two thirds through the season of country house opera, and Garsington and Grange Park have been neck and neck with good stagings all round.

It’s a joyous time to be an opera reviewer. Picnics, sunshine and excellent opera made in the made beautiful surroundings. This week Garsington have raced ahead towards the final furlong with their hilarious production of Falstaff.

First hit of the evening: the exceptional Philarmonia orchestra brings out every possible colour from Verdi’s bombastic score under the baton of Richard Farnes. Second hit: an outstandingly strong cast, blessed with both excellent voices and comic delivery. Third: intriguing sets and deliciously tasteful costumes make this a visual feast.

The Shakespearian tale Merry Wives of Windsor was taken on by Verdi and Boito as their final collaboration. Approaching the age of 80 didn’t stop him crafting an opera that is fit and lean. Packed full of action, Verdi barely lets us catch our breath until after the interval when Falstaff is sodden and sorry for himself.

This is the best rendering I have ever heard. Verdi flips the music from bluster and buffoonery to intricate ensembles at the drop of a hat and Richard Farnes ensures the connection between orchestra and performers isn’t lost for a second.

Bruno Ravella's direction is full of irresistible energy. His Edwardian drama has a strong feminist angle; Meg (Victoria Simmonds) and Alice (Mary Dunleavy) are placard-touting suffragettes. Giles Cadle’s designs give a lot of atmosphere with the minimum of materials: giant screen-printed backdrops are made 3D with cardboard cut-out details coming out into the stage.

Henry Waddington’s Falstaff is a beautifully crafted character. His initial bravado and sexual vanity has the audience happily on the side of the plotting women, but after he is dunked into the river, Waddington’s following aria manages to make us feel downright sympathetic to the poor old man. He’s a little strained at the top of his range, but this doesn’t detract from his excellent wit and buffoonery.

Richard Burkhard as Ford is simply a class act. Mary Dunleavy’s Alice Ford is a light-footed, bright-eyed creature with a sparkling voice, complemented well by Victoria Simmonds’s Meg Page, her more serious companion. Adrian Thompson’s Bardolfo and Nicholas Crawley’s Pistola make a great comic double act, while Yvonne Howard leads the pranks with her gorgeous dark toned mezzo.

Colin Judson positively shakes with rage Dr Caius. Soraya Mafi is a silver-toned Nannetta and Oliver Johnston a youthful, bright-voiced Fenton.

A bright and glittering performance from Garsington. I can’t believe that their final show of the season can top it, but I look forward to finding out.

Louise Lewis