Sir John in Love and Wozzeck have little in common. One is a romantic comedy, the other a brutal satire of the machine age. Yet both were written by composers who had seen first-hand the horror of the First World War. Where Wozzeck anticipates the degradation of the Depression, Sir John looks back to an age where the worst that might befall a man is being seen for what he is and not what he imagines himself to be.
Ian Judge's beautifully organised English National Opera production places Sir John in the faux-Tudor casements of the Arts and Crafts movement. This, as much as Shakespeare's England, is the focus of Vaughan Williams' nostalgia: a country untroubled by Continental assassinations or the consequent carnage of global conflict. Judge's Windsor - handsomely designed by John Gunter - is pleasant, prosperous and, courtesy of the bizarre Ambridge accents and the in-joke cow-pats, proudly pastoral. But for the absence of walls and the fact that its citizens wander about singing folk songs, it would be a nice place to bring up your children.
That Iain Paterson features in the minor role of Sir Hugh indicates how strong the casting is. Andrew Shore's blustering charisma, here amplified by billowing plus-fours and bravura facial hair, is ideal for the title role, while Jean Rigby (Mistress Ford), Marie McLaughlin (Mistress Page) and Sally Burgess (Mistress Quickly) make an excellent trio of scheming women. Juvenile leads Sarah Fox and Andrew Kennedy sing sweetly as Anne and Fenton, Alistair Miles' poker-faced Ford amuses, and the character work of Robert Tear, Christopher Gillett and Richard Coxon is reliably entertaining. More surprising is the plush strength of the score as played under Oleg Caetani. Though I sorely missed Verdi's final fugue, I was consistently impressed by how sympathetically Williams wrote for voices and how cleverly his instrumentation supports them. Excepting Tear's Clouseau-esque Dr Caius, the surtitles were, unusually, redundant.
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