OPERA 'Falstaff', Mayfair Suite, Birmingham

City of Birmingham Touring Opera delight with a welcome revival of Verdi's masterpiece. By Jan Smaczny
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The Independent Culture
City of Birmingham Touring Opera's revival of Falstaff provides a welcome opportunity to see how far this still relatively young company has come in eight years, both artistically and physically. Graham Vick's founding production was a brave start. Opera that takes performers to the limits of wit and subtlety is daring, and this Falstaff worked, on the whole, very successfully. In eight years, CBTO has developed extraordinary artistic confidence over a handful of remarkable productions. The company also seems happily settled into the Mayfair Suite in the heart of the city. When CBTO arrived here with Les Boreades three years ago, their surroundings were dismal and the acoustics unhelpful; now, the rougher aspects of the Suite have been cheerfully domesticated and it works well both visually and acoustically.

Best of all is the completeness of this project. Every aspect of Falstaff has been integrated, skilfully harnessing the abundant humour in Verdi's masterpiece. No detail is overlooked. Graham Vick's revived production flows as deftly as the score itself, with each move almost choreographically linked to the music. Paul Brown's set, a precipitous rake with trap-doors, has endless potential for humour, as do the costumes - from blowsy matrons to the Breughel peasant outfits worn by Bardolph and Pistol. Here was an apotheosis of the codpiece.

Musical values were also strong. It's not unreasonable to expect tight ensemble playing from a small band placed close to the stage, and this, with odd exceptions, was what we got. Better still was the playing. Individual instruments emerged from the fabric of Jonathan Dove's new orchestration with both colour and character commensurate with the activities on stage.

Stephen Rooke's Fenton and Deborah Myer's Nanetta made a delightful pair of young lovers, while their elders were realised with wicked attention to detail by Kate Flowers (Mrs Ford) and Marie Walshe (Meg Page). Pistol (David Marsh) and Bardolph (Andrew Forbes Lane) were suitably decadent, but more remarkable was Nuala Willis's Mistress Quickly, whose comic timing and astonishing bottom range were deployed to devastating effect. Best of all, in this dictionless age, was the clarity with which all of the cast delivered Amanda Holden's consistently funny and apposite translation.

Despite rampant excellence from all quarters, Keith Latham's Falstaff still shone. Played with cherubic verve, his reading of the role achieved the remarkable feat of being simultaneously appealing and appalling. There might have been a touch more of the ageing rake in his performance, but a natural feeling for comic interaction and a magnificently resonant vocal presence placed him centre-stage, even when he was buried in the linen basket. Stage-hogging is forgivable in any Falstaff, yet this tendency never surfaced in Latham's performance. However thrilling the individual performances are - and some of them are nearly edible - the greatest quality of this production is the way the ensemble works together, almost like clockwork. It will bring joy wherever it lands on this substantial tour.

To 1 Dec, Booking 0121-605 6666. Then touring