Arts: A knight to remember

OPERA: FALSTAFF GARSINGTON OPERA GARSINGTON MANOR GARSINGTON
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The Independent Culture
GARSINGTON TEN years on is Garsington triumphant. With a new seven- year licence, a comfortably reseated, heated auditorium, and a clutch of nifty Haydn, Mozart and Strauss productions already in the bag, Leonard Ingrams has turned for his first Verdi staging to the flowering of late genius.

In Falstaff, four decades on from La Traviata, Verdi fuses Mozartian wit and invention with the leavened maturity of Otello to give us (thanks to Arrigo Boito's inspired pruning of Shakespeare) the most insightful of all his operas. A merit of Stephen Unwin's visually uneven but largely enjoyable production was the way key mood changes were captured: Ford's aghast horror at his rival's gloating admission to a rendezvous with his wife; Falstaff's triumphant discovery of Bardolph and rebuttal of Ford's last-act jibes ("Lo scornato chi e? - Who's the ass now?"); and the drenched fat knight's humiliated soliloquy ("Mondo ladro, Mondo rubaldo - Thieving, cheating world").

This last was the plum in Robert Poulton's accomplished showing as Falstaff. A youngish cavaliere, brooding in the Garter Inn with knitted eyebrows, darting co-conspiratorial glances at the audience and peering horrified from soiled laundry as the icy Thames looms, this was a witty, controlled performance, strong in the middle ranges if occasionally stretched elsewhere.

Garsington's Guildhall-based band, bumped up to 50 players, proved the evening's heroes. Verdi makes exquisite use of flutes (above all, the swelling trills as liquor revives Falstaff from his ducking); the warmth of the strings was palpable (scurrying for Alice, powerfully intense for Ford's "Am I dreaming? Or is it true?") The Garsington fixed backdrop reflected the sound better than ever. Occasionally massed forces overbore the best of the women, Elizabeth Gale's beautifully sung Alice. Two female voice trios came over well; the men's quintet, by contrast, was more sharply focused than the women's foursomes.

The rest was a mixed bag, though Pamela Howard's modest set adjustments carved a convincing Windsor from the manor's gorgeous permanent stone backdrop.

Until 3 July (01865 361636)

Roderic Dunnett

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