Stand by for an operatic rarity: Vaughan Williams's Sir John in Love, composed in 1928, last professionally performed in Britain in 1958, and now being brought out of the attic by that directorial rarity Ian Judge. He has been busy of late abroad: time was when he was much in demand at the RSC, and at sundry British opera companies including English National Opera.
"The trouble was, I became seen as a safe pair of hands," he says. "And in the Nineties, companies wanted to take interesting risks." Not any more: a safe pair of hands is what ENO now needs, and Judge is delighted to be them.
But Vaughan Williams's folk-song-impregnated take on The Merry Wives of Windsor will suffer a lot of initial sneers. "Everyone's going to say Verdi's Falstaff is the masterpiece, and this is the also-ran," says Judge. "But though Falstaff is an absolutely brilliant piece, it empties theatres all over the world. Though it's meant to be a comic opera, it isn't funny for a moment."
On the other hand, Sir John is essentially Shakespeare's play. "The whole crazy population of Windsor is there. Academics may underrate it, but it's possibly Shakespeare's most genuinely funny play, because almost everyone is barking mad, and Vaughan Williams has given them music that accentuates this. What's thrilling is that I get to work with the singers on Shakespeare's own text - this opera is completely text-based in its humour and its character. And when did you last see one of those?"
But is Sir John great music? "You don't need that. A comic opera must entertain, and this actually has more melodies than a Puccini opera has. It can't be a bad thing to fill the Coliseum with people who go out feeling better than they did when they came in."
He's getting all the singers to use country or Cockney accents, while Falstaff and Fenton use frightfully upper-class ones. "We're going to give you a wonderful tapestry of England."
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