Garsington Opera – until 22 July 2018
Sung in Italian with English subtitles, Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff has opened at Garsington Opera and it is glorious. An evening of beautifully constructed, overt comedy featuring an elite cast of exceptionally talented artists. Ably assisted by the Philharmonia Orchestra, whose sound is carried effortlessly by the venue’s magnificent acoustics. This is their conductor, Richard Farnes’ Garsington debut.
The libretto for Falstaff is adapted by Arrigo Boito from The Merry Wives of Windsor and scenes from Henry IV parts 1 and 2, by Shakespeare. The notorious, obese Knight, John Falstaff (Henry Waddington) is at the centre of the story – gluttonous to the core, in order to aid his money worries he’s plotting to turn the heads of two of the three merry wives of Windsor (and almost succeeds in turning the head of the third, Mistress Quickly (Yvonne Howard).
Alice Ford (Mary Dunleavy) and Meg Page (Victoria Simmonds) each receive an identical love letter from the scheming braggart, delivered by the Page Boy, as Bardolfo (Adrian Thompson) and Pistola (Nicholas Crawley) have refused to be part of Falstaff’s deception. The unscrupulous pair is quick to tip off Ford (Richard Burkhard) about the devious plan and so forms another concurrent plot. Simultaneously, Ford and Alice’s daughter, Nannetta (Soraya Mafi) is desperate not to be matched with Dr Caius (Colin Judson) and with the help of the wives of Windsor she sets out to defy her father’s wishes and ultimately unite with her true love, Fenton (Oliver Johnston).
So unfolds a twisting, tantalising tale of mischief, enveloped by elegant, engaging and wondrous scenery and versatile props. Giles Cadle has designed a frame for the action which offers a window into the period of the piece, transporting the audience back in time with a simple flourish. I was truly transfixed by the backdrop and indeed the costumes which enhanced the overall depiction.
Henry Waddington is visually and physically comical in the title role, his articulate vocals perfectly portrayed the cocky character and the fat suit added a hilarious extra dimension. Richard Burkhard’s facial expressions were as integral as his strong voice in playing the fiercely jealous husband of Alice. He has palpable chemistry with Mary Dunleavy as Alice, Dunleavy is a gentile yet impish Alice and her dazzling vocal ability shone. Victoria Simmonds was equally engaging as Meg, cautious in comparison to her fellow mischief-makers yet just essential to the counter-plot forged by the wives. Yvonne Howard is perfectly cast as Mistress Quickly, who is the intrinsic cog in the elaborate prank – she takes joyous glee in the unfolding mayhem whilst resembling Queen Victoria in her black apparel. Howard’s mezzo-soprano voice melodiously complemented the character. Soraya Mafi was delightfully naïve and inquiring as the love-torn Nannetta, impeccably paired with Oliver Johnston as her desired partner, Fenton. Mafi’s vocals will resonate with me for a long time to come, pitch perfect.
Bruno Ravella has meticulously directed a rollicking ride of a comedic Opera, while Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design complements the natural light afforded by the remarkable, innovative venue. Movement direction from Tim Claydon is spectacularly notable and there is excellent support from Garsington Opera Chorus. If you’re not an Opera aficionado, this is a perfect introduction to Italian Opera, the comedy element alone offers insight into the synopsis. If you are an Opera buff and familiar with Falstaff, this production is absolutely worth a watch. Either way you’re in for a treat!