With Verdi's centenary coming up, his last opera Falstaff has had more attention than usual, with this production at Opera Holland Park following hot on the heels of Robert Carsen's new production at Covent Garden. I don't know whether OHP's director Annilese Miskimmon was aware of Carsen's production, but she certainly ended up with a similar aesthetic, set in twentieth century England with pastel-clad posh housewives and much brown clothing for the men. Of course, Opera Holland Park do things on a tiny fraction of Covent Garden's budget (no horses on stage here, and a small chorus), so it was impressive that they achieved an overall feel that was not far off Carsen's.
The OHP production gives a nod to Falstaff's military heritage by making him, Bardolph and Pistol into war veterans; sets are cleverly built out of small portions of house which are initially seen from the outside but swivel to reveal the rooms at the Garter Inn or Alice Ford's home. Miskimmon displays great attention to detail of movement and expression, lighting up the comedy with a whole stream of visual gags from many of the characters. The most impressive of which was when the substantial figure (augmented by fat suit, no doubt) of Olafur Sigurdarson as Falstaff performs a full cartwheel in joy at his impending seduction of Alice. As a piece of drama, the production had plenty of power: the bedroom farce sections were suitably rumbustious, and the baiting of Falstaff in Act III was sufficiently hostile to make me feel distinctly uncomfortable, until, of course, the ending in which harmony is restored.
A less inventive composer than Verdi might have cast Falstaff as a basso buffo, the traditional fast-talking figure of fun in Italian comic opera. Verdi's genius is to give the role to a dramatic baritone - a heroic baritone, almost - so that Falstaff's role becomes filled with pathos and genuine musical beauty even as it is played for laughs. It's a tough assignment for the singer, and Sigurdarson accomplished it magnificently. He acted the role with the required relish, and his voice was rich and lyrical enough for the main arias while retaining enough agility to work perfectly in the hilarious mimicry of the women and other characters.
Most of rest of the large ensemble cast acted excellently and sung well. The other outstanding vocal performance was that of Rhona McKail as Nannetta, whose lilt and timbre were quite beautiful. Her high spot was a pianissimo Anzi rinnova cone fa la luna in the duet with her sweetheart Fenton, a line which came through with bewitching purity.
Peter Robinson and the City of London Sinfonia kept the music upbeat and flowing, but I felt a lack of that last edge of crispness in individual playing and I missed some of the defter nuances in the score. It was a competent musical performance rather than one that really thrilled - in contrast to the acting and stagecraft, which maintained very high standards throughout.
As a man gets older - even a man of the utmost bourgeois respectability - somewhere inside him is a small voice saying "To hell with all this propriety. I want to say what I like and do what I like - be rude to people, eat too much, drink too much, chase women and have laughs". Verdi and Boito's Falstaff is the personification of that small voice, magnified into a heroic roar. At Holland Park last night, Olafur Sigurdarson treated us to a splendid interpretation. Within the context of some excellent staging and acting, even if the music as a whole didn't always gel perfectly, Sigurdarson gave us a Falstaff to remember.
Holland Park TheatreHolland Park
London Greater London United Kingdom W8 6LU