Arts: Knight to remember

The much-maligned Royal Opera computer worked its magic for Falstaff. But did the company live up to it? By Edward Seckerson

It was probably the most eagerly awaited scene change in the history of the Royal Opera. Over the past week or so, speculation has been rife: would it happen? And, if it did, would it happen on time and how long would it take? Well, suspense over. The expensive technology did its thing, and the hushed house looked on like proud parents. The Garter Inn sank without a trace, Falstaff's humungous bed deflating like a popped balloon of chewing gum while the manicured lawns of Ford's garden glided silently and gracefully over it from way upstage. Laughter and applause. And relief.

"All the world's a jest," sings Falstaff at the close of Verdi's wonderful opera. And, in Graham Vick's very bright and very breezy new production, that includes the scene changes. Paul Brown's garishly colourful sets and costumes - shocking yellows, pinks, greens, blues, shocking everything - are a series of visual chuckles, and the little tricks they perform are very much part of the stage business.

So when the aforementioned bed does pop, only to be sucked rather disgustingly into a tiny trap-door like a used... well, I really can't bring myself to say... there's a laugh right there. Equally, the rolling lawns of Ford's garden - a playful image straight out of a Teletubbies set - sprout fast- growing pear trees. And the later transformation into Ford's house brings yet another monster bed, this time wittily canopied, rudely to dominate scene and action. Lest you forget, you see, this is a piece about cuckoldry. Merry wives and medieval monkey-business, slap and tickle for big kids.

So there is a kind of childish, playful, stylised wit in the visuals. Falstaff's bed sits amid the debris of his gluttony, bottles and plates strewn everywhere; his table has sagged under the weight of a few too many meals. And a row of stags-head trophies look down from the wall as if to remind him that anyone - even he - might end up wearing the cuckold's horns. And, of course, he does. Later, after his humiliating dowsing in the Thames, Vick and his designer play a terrific visual trick, turning his "wretched world" upside down - literally. He's effectively up among the trophies (and even they've turned their backs on him) looking down, as it were, on the ruins of his life and pride.

But I wouldn't want to give the impression that Vick's staging is all about visual "business". The key scene in Ford's house turns into a bit of a joust with Ford's leaping, tumbling cronies flying every which way, the matrimonial bed turning into a bit of a trampoline. And there's a wonderful human tree in the final scene, hanging bodies hauntingly alluding to Herne, the hunter's grisly demise. But Vick's production is, as always, text-led. And what a text it is for a first-rate cast such as this to spirit from page to stage.

All eyes and ears, of course, were on Bryn Terfel and he was magnificent. It's hard to think of another Falstaff where the vocal and physical characterisation was so fully rounded. And I'm not talking padding and prosthetics. His booming pomposity, his cooing falsettos his pathos (in the great monolgue of Act 3) where the realisation finally dawns that he is old and grey and fat: all these facets were memorably explored in the richest possible detail.

He was well-met and well-matched by the beguiling Alice of Barbara Frittoli. Just to hear her scan the phrase "and your face will shine upon me" - rapture with a twist of cynicism - is reason enough to purchase a ticket. Other reasons include the terrier-like Ford of Roberto Frontali and the small but well-formed voices of the young lovers, Desiree Rancatore (Nannetta) and Kenneth Tarver (Fenton) - though Fenton should really shine through the ensembles more than it is in Tarver's capability to do so.

Bernard Haitink must have been thrilled at the way his orchestra animated and ennobled Verdi's glorious score, the woodwinds in particular chortling their way through the busy narrative. The final chorus seemed to be cocking a snook at all those who didn't think any of it could happen. "Don't get in bed with the Royal Opera" was the familiar cry. But under a huge yellow bed-sheet, the entire Falstaff company seemed to be inviting us to do just that. I guess that means they're back in business.

To 22 Dec (0171-304 4000). Live on BBC2 on 22 Dec at 7.30pm

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