Falstaff, Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Five: 15, Oran Mor, Glasgow
Oh, what a knight! The drinking, the laughter, the flirtations, the yawns...
Sunday 09 March 2008
The final image of Peter Stein's production of Verdi's Falstaff says it all. Dunked in a ditch, duped by the merry wives and denounced as a fool, poor, greedy, self-loving, self-loathing Sir John magically ascends through the night air of Windsor Park and floats above his tormentors, grinning from ear to ear. The Welsh bass-baritone is back, and if Bryn Terfel's charisma has dimmed since withdrawing from the Royal Opera House Ring cycle last year, his vocal versatility remains inimitable. Set Casablanca to music (please don't) and he could sing any of the male roles: Rick Blaine, Victor Laszlo, Captain Renault, Signor Ferrari, Ugarte or Sam.
As I dare say Welsh National Opera knows, Terfel could spend his entire career in Cardiff, knowing that London, Vienna and New York would come to him. His Sir John is less imaginatively and energetically characterised than his Schicchi, Wotan or Mephistopheles, but his ability to switch from a roar to a purr is intoxicating. Shame, then, that Stein's 20-year-old staging of Verdi's madrigalian masterpiece is so dry and dull. The movement direction is slow to the point of stasis, and, when it happens, seems driven by a desire to utilise Lucio Fanti's lugubrious, galleried set.
Individual performances are of a high quality, with a gracious, knowing Alice (Janice Watson), a charming Nannetta (Claire Ormshaw), a lyrically sung Fenton (Rhys Meirion), an impish Robin (Isaac Marks), a feisty double-act from Neil Jenkins and Julian Close as Bardolph and Pistol, and a riveting Ford from Christopher Purves, whose "E sogno" is the most compelling aria of the evening. In the pit, Carlo Rizzi keeps the orchestral textures clear, the attack clean, and the sound unobtrusive. Nothing is terribly exciting, vital or illuminating. But with Terfel on the bill, WNO has little reason to go the extra mile.
Thanks to Tête-à-Tête, portmanteau productions of new mini-operas are a regular fixture in England. (Remember Shorts, Six Pack and Blind Date?) In Scotland, they're a novelty, hence Glasgow thronged to Scottish Opera's Five: 15.
Unlike the Tête-à-Tête shows, each of the five 15-minute-long sketches was commissioned with a view to being expanded at a later date, which, along with the dearth of operatic experience among many of the low-profile composers and high-profile librettists, the absence of a shared theme, and the bafflingly slow scene-changes, contributed to a sense of formlessness.
Strongest by far was Lyell Cresswell and Ron Butlin's Weimaresque The Perfect Woman, which had bite, pungency, theatrical pace, a beginning, middle and end, and distinctive orchestration. On stage, the finest performance came from Kate Valentine, whose vibrant soprano, crisp diction and ardent presence lent several of the drabber pieces a degree of glamour they did not merit. Perfect Woman aside, why take opera out of the opera house when the material is this weak?
'Falstaff' (0870-040 2000) final performance today, then touring. 'Five: 15': The Hub, Edinburgh (0131-473 2000), ends today
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