OPERA / Kids' stuff: Falstaff - English National Opera

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The Independent Culture
In David Pountney's ENO staging of Verdi's Falstaff, the stage business accompanying the fat knight's comeuppances is so brilliantly contrived you almost want to get up on stage and join in. The chance to do just that was offered in the schools' workshops given by the Baylis Programme in Sutton House, Hackney's only National Trust property.

Children and opera: a tricky combination. I know several people who, forced to attend as children, developed a permanent allergy to opera. Yet many develop operaphilia at an early age. How encourage the one without alienating the other?

Most of the children on the day I attended the Baylis project at least enjoyed getting out of the classroom. Well prepared, they seemed to grasp what was afoot, as they divided into four groups, each assigned to a different character from the opera in a different part of the house. And when it came to throwing Falstaff out with the dirty laundry, or tormenting him in the forest, they certainly went at it with a will.

I'd been hoping for a little Bash Street-style disruptiveness, but the children were terribly well-behaved. None of them seemed in the least interested in the Russian TV crew filming proceedings. Perhaps children aren't all obsessed with television. Nor did any seem dismayed by sudden switches from spoken conversation to musical performance. Perhaps children see singing as a natural way to communicate, and only when we put aside 'childish' things does opera come to seem irrational.

I doubt whether the workshops should be seen as preparation for the 'real' thing: they have their own validity. Still, the children will attend the Coliseum production, and perhaps they will be enchanted, not least by the scurryings and scamperings in Windsor Forest, where imaginative lighting and a willingness to treat the opera playfully, even childishly, show ENO at its most magical.

This revival is in good shape, and in one respect at least works better than on its last outing: then, Benjamin Luxon's Falstaff was wayward, colourless. Now the voice is in much better condition, even if vehemence occasionally substitutes for vocal finesse. Making his Coliseum debut, Andrew Litton conducts with winning brashness, allowing the brass to be as assertive and rotund as Falstaff's roomy belly. A good show, then: I wonder if it would be fair to add that old tag, 'for children of all ages'?

In rep at the London Coliseum (071-836 3161) to 29 March