Falstaff, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

In a concert performance as good as this one, the orchestra can render the mise-en-scène redundant. Exploding from bar one like an irrepressible life force, it brings Windsor magically to the City of London before Verdi has introduced a single human voice.

Colin Davis has always been a fine advocate of Verdi's final masterpiece. Falstaff is an opera he can relate to: the manner is entirely English; only the accent is Italian. In scene one, when Falstaff struggles to his feet to admonish Pistol and Bardolph with an untimely lecture on "honour", Davis had his superb London Symphony Orchestra unleash a trill that seemed to shake every ounce of blubber on the fat knight's ample frame. And yet what we saw before us in the person of Michele Pertusi was a tall, slender, elegant figure - the Falstaff of old struggling to free himself from a fat, decaying body. That's the beauty of a concert performance - no padding, no prosthetics; words, music and imagination do the job for you.

Pertusi's Falstaff led a particularly fine cast. What he gave us above all was an Italian's command of the text in all its fine detail. The voice may be lighter, smoother and softer-grained than we are accustomed to, but it is important for us to remember who Falstaff was in order to appreciate fully who he is. Pertusi's Falstaff was deliciously suave, still clinging to gentlemanly ways despite his fallen state. The scene with Ford - the marvellous Carlos Alvarez - was a masterclass in deception and innuendo. Alvarez was a wonderful foil to Pertusi, his voice darker and grainier. In the great monologue, his scornful fury was palpable - though he might have persuaded Davis to give him a little more room for the climactic high G.

Someone should take credit for the casting. Verdi's finely delineated ensemble, and the balance of voices therein, could hardly have been better served. Ana Ibarra Nadal, as Alice Ford, was a real find - a young singer with abundant personality and technique across the full range of Verdi's piquant writing. Marina Domashenko's dusky-voiced Meg Page was the perfect foil for her, effecting a sparky interplay of high and low voices, and Jane Henschel's Mistress Quickly possessed all the devilment of a female Falstaff.

No one really dropped a stitch the whole evening - quite an achievement with no easy sight-lines to the conductor. But more than that, the spirit of a stage performance was always there. You'd have sworn bodies were darting hither and thither in the mayhem of the scene in Ford's house. Hold the scenery; this was heaven.