Falstaff is the subtlest and most refined of all Verdi's operas, dazzling us with its fast paced dialogue and action, softly animated, quicksilver music and delicately observed character interactions, which lie beside the broadest imaginable comedy. Verdi's lightness of touch and total mastery of dramatic momentum make it a joy to watch and contemplate, even though it might initially seem slightly lymphatic compared to the altogether more robust tragic dramas of his middle period.
Director Annilese Miskimmon has chosen to update the action to around WW1 time in small town England, with Falstaff as a war veteran with shell shocked survivors being tended to by nurses and priests in the opening scene. Ford is the town's imperious vicar, and also the instructor of his young curate Dr. Caius. The town is depicted by small buildings that rotate to display their twee post war interiors, which sometimes perform their job very well, but just almost as often look cluttered and unfinished on the stage. Still, Miskimmon captures much of the fun of the piece, and seems to understand its pacey comedy and particular charm. There are mishaps though, two of which are quite serious - first, the climax of the first half, where Falstaff is tipped out the window, which is here very awkwardly achieved, and also in the mystical forest scene which just looks like a piece of ropey am-dram. Maybe the latter was intentional, but the music suggests that the townspeople achieve more than just a school play in their farce.
Olafur Sigurdarson was impressively athletic as Falstaff, dashing about the stage and even performing a cartwheel at one point. I liked that this production revealed his irrepressible vigour and boundless energy - there seemed to be absolutely no question at all that he would be able to pull an entire crowd of people in a tug of war, nor that he would ultimately have the last laugh. Sigurdarson can really sing the part too and is as good as can be expected for an opera company of this size. His foil, Ford, was sung by George von Bergen with impressive power and force, and mostly his straighter delivery worked very well.
Linda Richardson was a rather less glamorous Alice Ford than we are used to seeing and hearing, and instead of the character's usual elegance and wit, she was portrayed as an awkward, good humoured, slightly scrappy and fussy housewife who always wins out due to her resourcefulness and practical intelligence. Vocally, she wasn't really adequate, and though the voice somewhat fitted the characterisation, Verdi's actual notes often suffered in a blur of wide vibrato, inelegant coloratura and shrieked high notes. She's the most vocally subdued of all Verdi's heroines, but no Verdi is easy to sing well and I wasn't really convinced here. Carolyn Dobbin as Meg and Carole Wilson as Mistress Quickly were both excellent and far more stylishly sung though Rhona McKail's Nanetta was rather unsteady and lacked the requisite sweetness of timbre and effortlessly floated high notes that this role needs. Benjamin Hulett's Fenton seemed promising though his dynamics control was limited, with impressively loud climaxes arriving from nowhere.
The pit orchestra seemed better rehearsed than in the Onegin I saw last week, though is a little quiet in the frankly awful acoustics of the Holland Park tent (only acceptable in the front, middle portion). Lots of nice touches though and most importantly there was a very good connection between pit and stage which allowed the comedy to come from the music.