Falstaff, Theatre Royal, Glasgow<br />Emanuel Ax, Wigmore Hall, London

Tom Piper's genteel Windsor seems an unlikely billet for Falstaff and his drunken hangers-on, </p><p>but in this glorious new production of Verdi's opera, it's absolutely the only place you want to be
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

but in this glorious new production of Verdi's opera, it's absolutely the only place you want to be

By Anna Picard

'Steal with charm, and choose your moment." The maxim quoted by Sir John Falstaff is well served by Dominic Hill's Scottish Opera production of Verdi's final opera: a subtle, sepia-tinted, Indian-summer staging that highlights the poignancy in this lusty comedy of laundry baskets and cuckolds' horns.

Set in the last years of Queen Victoria's reign, and prettily dressed by designer Tom Piper, with leg-o'-mutton sleeves, deer-shaped topiary and garden trugs of night-scented stocks, Hill's Windsor is a quiet, confident, comfortable place. There's money in the bank, food on the table, and, when grey clouds briefly block the late-afternoon sunshine of Ben Ormerod's exquisite lighting, sweet wine to restore "the eternal trill". That Falstaff and his bibulous side-kicks have washed up in such a respectable town seems scarcely credible. Yet here they are at the Garter Inn: plotting, bickering, joking, drinking, living on credit, and, in the case of Alasdair Elliott's scarlet-nosed Bardolfo, vomiting into a champagne bucket.

Resplendent in his fat-suit, his shirt front a Jackson Pollock drip painting of chicken fat and sherry, Peter Sidhom's Sir John has charm enough to offset his oily paunch. Preposterous as he is, you can bet he'd be more fun in the sack than the jealous, proper, handsome Ford (William Dazeley). Sidhom's easy gestures, conversational phrasing, bright tone and idiomatic diction are matched by the rest of the cast and by orchestral playing that, under conductor Peter Robinson, is as text-sensitive as the singing. From the stomping double basses of "Va, vecchio John" to the wistful flutes and headily perfumed trombones of the forest, the orchestral performance is excellent. Though the nonets teetered on the brink of calamity on the first night, individual voices are beautifully balanced, the fairy chorus of "Pizzica, pizzica" as sharp as needles.

Light-footed and wasp-waisted, Maria Costanza Nocentini and Leah-Marian Jones's Alice and Meg elegantly balance Sally Burgess's earthy Mistress Quickly, whose deep affection for Falstaff – an aspect overlooked in Boito's adaptation of Shakespeare's play – is palpable. As Fenton and Nannetta, Federico Lepre and Lucy Crowe are touchingly childlike. Arias come and go, all well sung, all accompanied faultlessly by Robinson. But the magic of this production is in the dialogues: Falstaff's unlikely transaction with "Signor Fontana", the sniping between Pistola (Giles Tomkins) and Dr Caius (Peter Van Hulle), Fenton and Nannetta's sweet, stolen kisses, and the chatter of women who know their husbands better than their husbands know themselves. Perceptive and humane, this is a Falstaff to treasure.

Emanuel Ax's Wigmore Hall recital last weekend was both dazzling and strangely dissatisfying. Technically, Ax is among the most gifted pianists alive: a master of colour, voicing and articulation, in whose large hands the most extreme dynamics and tricky figures never sound forced or cluttered. Cross-hands are a doddle for him. Counterpoint is never less than brilliantly clear. Rubato is immaculately controlled, the use of pedal is flawless. Yet of Beethoven's Sonata in A, Opus 2, No 2, and Appassionata Sonata, Opus 57, and Schumann's Fantasy in C, Opus 17, and Papillons, Opus 2, only the Beethoven seemed entirely to coalesce in this performance.

The A major Sonata is a young man's work, one that delights in vivid textures and unpredictable rhythms, Mozartian in its delicacy, Beethovian in its revolutionary zeal. Here, Ax's naturally big, mellow sound and nimble articulation of the Largo's bass-line were delightful, while the dynamic arc of the Rondo was breathtaking.

Less convincing was the Fantasy, in which the fugato grew uncomfortably bombastic and the more intimate sections were rushed. There was a similar sense of breathlessness in Papillons, and for all the clarity of Ax's execution, I would have welcomed more space between each episode, more lyricism, and a greater sense of improvisation. A tumbling, thundering, highly interventionist reading of the Appassionata closed the recital, confirming my suspicion that, like the Missa Solemnis, this is a work that sounds more and more bizarre the more one hears it.

'Falstaff': Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0870-060 6647) to 24 May, then touring to Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh

Comments