Falstaff, Royal Opera House

Hard-edged, brilliant show comes together as never before (but the machines still don't work)
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The Independent Culture

Graham Vick's production of Verdi's great comic opera was castigated as a flashy but safe choice to open the revamped Royal Opera House four winters ago: the avant-garde production it displaced was lamented as a missed opportunity. Now Falstaff is back, with Bryn Terfel again in the lead but with Antonio Pappano in the pit and we can judge it more soberly.

The bad news is that Covent Garden's super-duper stage machinery still doesn't work properly. The good news is that this hard-edged, brilliant show has come together as never before.

Making his leitmotifthe antlers of cuckoldry, Vick's designer, Paul Brown, weaves a spell in every scene. First a mad world of hectic reds and yellows, dominated by Falstaff in his giant bed. Then, in a magical gear-change, we enter a garden where box-trees sprout from stylised undulating waves of green sward. This is a world in which you feel anything could happen, and in the next scene it does, as Mistress Ford's bed unfolds from the heavens as though by a conjuring trick.

The final scene offers a drunk's eye view of the world. Brown has David Hockney's gift for resonantly contrasting colours: there are moments when his blues and greens sing as eloquently as the music. Bandbox-bright medievalism for the costumes hits exactly the right note.

And what Vick does in these enchanted spaces is often apposite. The contrapuntal richness of the garden scene, where the counter-plot is hatched, is reflected in the way the three groups of characters move to and fro among the green undulations: excitedly chattering women, growling men, and the clandestine lovers Fenton and Nannetta. The acrobats who tumble about when Falstaff is caught out seemed initially way over the top, but this whiff of the circus now feels not at all out of place. Bryn Terfel always seemed made for the title role, and now he's properly worked in, the fit seems even more perfect, down to the padded legs and grotesquely rubberised tummy. His intensely physical performance is complemented by a ringing authority of tone.

In technical terms, this opera offers a particular challenge, in that cruelty is repeatedly expressed in music of ravishing beauty. Spurred by Pappano's energy and expressive warmth, this evening is a musical triumph.

Anthony Michael-Moore's Ford – a man as in love with jealousy as Falstaff is with his stomach – had both weight and sweetness of tone.

Massimo Giordano's Fenton is underprojected, but the female quartet in the garden scene – underpinned by Stephanie Blythe's burnished mezzo, with Rebecca Evans' Nannetta floating over the top – represents an ideal vocal balance.

There was always a question mark over Vick's concept for the final act, in which vengeance is subsumed into high fancy and universal forgiveness. The great tree of human bodies, with its crucifixal connotations, seemed at first portentous, but now feels powerfully appropriate. The Queen of the Night casts her spell over the horned beasts with beguiling freshness, and the closing choral fugue radiates optimism about the human race.