First night: On the horns of a dilemma

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Two Falstaffs, at the London Coliseum and the Hackney Empire, illustrate one of opera's problems: too grand, and you draw the attention of a slash-and-burn government; too small, and the audience fails to materialise. By Nick Kimberley

Matthew Warchus's production of Verdi's Falstaff for English National Opera (shared with Opera North) gives us a Windsor out of Italian Renaissance paintings, all deep perspectives and warm colours. For the first two acts, Laura Hopkins's set is a steeply raked box, lit through canvas at the beginning of each scene so as to emphasise its painterliness. With action hemmed within this enclosed space, attention focuses the more on Falstaff, in Alan Opie's performance a figure containing all the appetites of the world. Then in the final act the stage opens out to its fullest extent. As Falstaff moves towards his final come-uppance, he is dwarfed by the looming townscape. Only when his humiliations are complete does he regain stature to remind us how dull life would be without him. Although it is rather noisy, Hopkins's set brilliantly achieves the transformation from Windsor High Street, where the perspectives play strange tricks of scale, to the Great Park, a faery realm of infinite mystery and mishap.

Clearly sung in Amanda Holden's unobtrusively efficient translation, this Falstaff may as yet lack the last degree of refinement that Verdi's score deserves, but conductor Oliver von Dohnnyi makes sure the energy never flags. Riding easily in the orchestral ebb and flow, Opie's Falstaff fills the stage, but there is fine singing elsewhere, notably from Keith Latham's Ford, no bumbling fool but a dangerously jealous man with a gun, and from Rita Cullis's Alice and Catherine Wyn-Rogers's Quickly. What emerges, though, is an ensemble performance, the kind of show that has won ENO its loyal and enthusiastic audience.

A post-performance speech by the company's music director, Paul Daniel, found an unexpected parallel between the letters that Falstaff sends to Alice and Meg and the messages recently received from Chris Smith by ENO and the Royal Opera House. Not everything in the Coliseum garden smells of roses, but that is no reason to adopt Smith's slash-and-burn proposal, which would undoubtedly damage ENO. Nor is touring the easy option Smith seems to imagine. If anything, we may already have too much touring opera. At any rate, the audience for Pegasus Opera Company's Falstaff at Hackney Empire last Thursday was disappointingly small.

Perhaps that is what happens if your production clashes with a new Coliseum staging, but Pegasus offers opera on a very different scale: a 15-piece orchestra, a single set, no chorus, no supernumerary kids. In at least one respect, though, the performance was full-scale: Glyn Paul's Falstaff was as large as life, ringingly sung, soundly characterised. He easily dominated Christopher Cowell's compact if tame staging, which set the action in Middle England shortly after the First World War. Paul Atkinson's set and David Roblou's conducting moved things along efficiently, and there were characterful performances from Simone Sauphanor's Alice Ford and Alison Crookendale's Meg Page. I think Pegasus was using the same translation as heard at the Coliseum: the programme neglected to give us credit, for which nul point. The company has a commendably multiracial policy, although I'm not sure how different that makes it from other touring companies, few of which restrict themselves to white singers.

`Falstaff' at the London Coliseum until 3 December (0171-632 8300).