The three Girl Guides working on a tapestry front cloth of Windsor-upon-Thames for Richard Jones’ new Glyndebourne staging of Verdi’s Falstaff are well on the way to finishing when we, the audience, arrive.
Enough to tell you that this Falstaff glimpses Tudor times from our own. Indeed when the curtain rises on the mock-Tudor interior of the Garter Inn, Sir John himself is busily typing the letters which will expedite a good dowsing for his libido later in the evening. He’s probably got his memoirs on the go, too. There are tales to tell and there’ll be many more come midnight at Herne’s Oak.
So why the update for Verdi’s late masterpiece? And why post-war 40s/ early 50s? Well, there are neat social parallels to Shakespeare’s England. It was a time of growth from austerity (sounding familiar?), the old class system was alive and well and living in places like Windsor, and whilst the old orders like Sir John were drinking away their privileges and private means, there was new money – like Ford (Tassis Christoyannis), a kind of erstwhile Alan Sugar not here looking for an apprentice but rather a wholesaler for the prize cabbages which grow in profusion outside his pristine Thames-side townhouse (designer Ultz). It’s typical of Jones’ eye for seemingly irrelevant detail – like the college rowing team which casually files through Ford’s garden while the ladies are plotting their revenge in scene two; or the Eton schoolboys keenly scouring the Thames for a sighting of Sir John’s bloated carcass at the start of the last act. Hockney eat your heart out, there has been no bigger splash than this one. Not that the swan gliding serenely across the stage throughout that scene seems in the least perturbed.
We know that Jones’ greatest skill in opera is as a keen listener and the manners and attitudes and physical “business” here sharply reflect the rich sonic characterisation of Verdi’s score. In the pit, Vladimir Jurowski has the London Philharmonic hone their reflexes so that every instrumental guffaw, exclamation, explosive flourish leaps out at you. It’s exciting and detailed and rhythmically so alive. But I wonder if the calculation of it all doesn’t undermine the natural good nature of the piece. The whole evening lacks warmth and spontaneity. And for all the ingenuity of Jones’ staging I’m inclined to think it falls between two stools. The laughs and real and subtle, there is wit in the observation – like the moment Falstaff and Ford (in disguise) play their “After you” game, neither prepared to go through the door first; a wry parody of old courtesies. But by Jones’ standards this is a low-key and hardly audacious evening. Ultz, too, has produced something functional rather than truly witty. The key scene in Ford’s house is a missed opportunity.
Plenty to admire in the performances, though. There’s an unusually resounding Dr. Caius from Peter Hoare, sweetly sung nothings from the young lovers, Adriana Kucerova (Nanetta) and Bulent Bezduz (Fenton) “filling the darkling air with love” in the final scene, and an Alice from Dina Kuznetsova providing ample vocal enticement to Sir John. But remember those Girl Guides? Well, what a smart idea to cast Mistress Quickly as Brown Owl. Marie-Nicole Lemieux has the chest notes and stout shoes to play Falstaff at his own game and run off with the laughs.
Christopher Purves, one of our most versatile singing actors, cleverly suggests that while the pounds have piled on, this Falstaff will never abandon keeping up appearances. He’s still light on his feet, he’s still piss-elegant, he’s still - in his imagination - that lissom pageboy to the Duke of Norfolk. And, yes, he still believes he’s sexy enough to carry off the Safari Suit and shorts even when the mirror should have told him otherwise.