Falstaff, Glyndebourne Festival, Sussex
The Abduction from the Seraglio, Grand Theatre, Leeds
Verdi's comic opera is set in a post-war Britain where food is plentiful and love can conquer the scheming of a fat knight
Sunday 31 May 2009
From the regimented rows in Alice Ford's garden to the leafy bodices of the fairies at Herne's Oak, Richard Jones's nostalgic post-war production of Falstaff is stuffed full of cabbages. Like the ginger cat that purrs at each tickle of Sir John's adipose index finger, these sturdy winter staples are a sly reference to the libretto. (Told of her father's plan to marry her off to Dr Caius, Nannetta exclaims she would rather be stoned to death with cabbage stalks.) It might seem perverse to choose the humble cabbage from Shakespeare's menu of fennel, truffles, anchovies, capons and hot wine. But this is the Britain of Marguerite Patten: a place where gardens were dug for victory long after victory had been won, where olive oil was kept at the chemists and anchovies were restricted to Gentleman's Relish.
Appetite – culinary and carnal – is all in Falstaff. The obligatory stag's head aside, the first set of cuckold's horns we see are two sausages poking out of a pile of mashed potato. Jones and his designer, Ultz, have stepped out of their 1970s comfort zone and back to the mock Tudor living rooms of their grandparents' generation. Though Mistress Quickly (Marie-Nicole Lemieux) still sports her Harris tweed Women's Voluntary Service uniform and Fenton (Bulent Bezduz) is a handsome GI, Windsor is a placid and optimistic town. George VI gazes benignly down on the drinkers at the Garter Inn; the toy shop window is full, and wedding dresses can at last be made of something other than parachute silk. Embroidery is another recurring theme, indicating a degree of prosperity in the Ford household, and, perhaps, boredom. Ultz's front-cloth is a giant facsimile of an Anchor tapestry kit of a riverside view of Windsor Castle, tended by three industrious Brownies, and while Christopher Purves's Falstaff hides in the laundry basket, Fenton and Nannetta (Adriana Kucerova) canoodle behind a cross-stitch screen.
From the carbon-copied love letters to the baroque curls of Purves's smoke rings, from the obligatory small boy with a catapult to the animatronic cats, from Bardolph's Bride of Dracula fancy dress (Alasdair Elliott) to Pistol's Frankenstein's monster (Paolo Battaglia) and Ford's Dracula (Tassis Christoyannis), it would be easy to be seduced by the period detailing in this Falstaff. On stage and in the pit, the needlework in this sentimental tapestry is exceptionally fine. Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra produce a vivid and intricate reading of Verdi's last, glorious, tender score: all rude brass and blanched, moonstruck strings, snapping attack and swooning glow, madrigalian counterpoint and Puccinian gloss.
You can fall for the delicious blend of the ensembles, the collegial spirit of the cast, the zing of Glyndebourne's youthful chorus. Look and listen a little harder, however, and you can feel the love of text in the singing: Purves's delight in every syllable of Falstaff's hyperbole, his extravagant posturing, the accidental perspicacity of his philosophical observations; the sisterly banter of Dina Kuznetsova and Jennifer Holloway's Alice and Meg; Lemieux's touchingly hearty Quickly; the boyish fragility of Bezduz's Act III sonetto, and, most particularly, the pure, insistent, first-love bliss of Kucerova's "Anzi rinnova come fa la luna". Jones has made this Fenton and Nannetta's story, and made Falstaff the essential catalyst in a cosy world that without his greed, gullibility, girth and good humour would have celebrated a more respectable but less happy marriage.
Those expecting exotic sweetmeats from Tim Hopkins's Opera North production of The Abduction from the Seraglio will be bitterly disappointed. The setting is a modern-day Emirate state, where tiny skyscrapers are moved about like toys and even tinier people are moved between them, followed, rather clumsily, on video. Subtitled "The True and Tragical History of the Pasha who wasn't a Turk", Nicholas Ridout's script introduces a speaking mute (actress Nadia Morgan), an airport novel subplot in which Constanze (Kate Valentine) is torn between fidelity to Allan Clayton's drippy Belmonte and an increasingly powerful attraction to Pasha Selim (Martin Hyder), and a bizarre speech from Osmin (Clive Bayley) that mocks Dick Cheney's foreign policies.
Instead of tightening the framework of Mozart's charming but tricky piece, Hopkins has slackened and soured it with cumbersome scene changes, amateurish projections and 17 minutes of earnest unbroken dialogue in the final scene alone. Though Bayley, Valentine and Elena Xanthoudakis (Blonde) sing stylishly and the orchestra positively fizzes under Rory Macdonald, Hopkins has merely exchanged one century's East-West clichés for those of another.
'Falstaff': Glyndebourne Festival (01273 813813) to 11 Jul. 'Abduction from the Seraglio': The Lowry, Salford (0870 787 5780) 2-5 Jun, then touring
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