Opera North's Falstaff: a fat lot of good that is

CLASSICAL MUSIC
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Opera North's new Falstaff plays the piece so straight - fat knight, full skirts and nice warm feelings - that it could almost be one of those old photos of Fifties opera at Sadler's Wells come to life: an homage to the English lyric stage. But scratch the surface of Matthew Warchus's production and you find something infinitely more sophisticated, which explores a way of having big performances without resort to lawks- a-mercying ham. Everything, including Falstaff's belly, feels big, for the simple reason that it is shoehorned into scaled-down, boxed-in sets: designed (by Laura Hopkins) like peep-show dioramas with drastically foreshortened perspectives which suggest depth without providing it. An extremely elegant idea, it works beautifully - and achieves a magical Act III transformation from the street by the Garter Inn into the midnight depths of Windsor Forest.

That the street looks like Renaissance Florence makes you wonder whether Falstaff has been in the Thames or in the Arno; but that's entirely defensible. Verdi's last opera is a masterpiece of duality. As music it both consolidates the past and takes a bold step forward, endorsing the German symphonic style of opera Verdi otherwise spent much of his twilight years attacking. As an adaptation of Shakespeare its idea of Old England is mated with nostalgia for an Old Italy whose passing the composer mourned. And whatever his respect for the original, it's pretty clear that Verdi would have liked his Falstaff to have been a creature from Boccaccio.

In any event, he would surely have liked Andrew Shore's performance in the title role, which is a model of unhysterical comic timing and benign humour, and sung (in English) with a clarity uncompromised by swagger. But Opera North ultimately wins on all-round company strength, with a strong, sympathetic Ford (Robert Hayward), a genuinely funny Quickly (Frances McCafferty) and a classically charming Nanetta (Margaret Richardson). The orchestral sound is probably the best I've ever heard at Leeds; and the conductor Paul Daniel does a superb job, as assured, commanding and complete as you could ask. As a Londoner, I'm counting the days until Daniel takes up his new appointment at ENO.

If you didn't know already, you'll soon be made aware that the last day of this month is the bicentenary of the birth of Schubert. This event hasn't inspired the commercial frenzy of the Mozartjahre in 1991 - Schubert just doesn't look so good on mugs - but is certainly providing work for the composer's latter-day champions. Not least Andras Schiff, who seems to have taken charge of the impending Schubertfest in Britain; he fronts a BBC1 TV special next Wednesday that promises to address the eternally engaging subject of the composer's sexuality. Was Schubert gay? Were those 600 songs of heterosexual love, rejection and distress a Tchaikovskyan, gender-bent screen for his true feelings? Tune in and find out more, maybe.

Meanwhile, the Wigmore Hall celebrations have already started, with an extraordinary performance by the baritone Matthias Gorne and pianist Irwin Gage of Winterreise, that greatest and darkest of song cycles. Gorne is one of the new, young breed of lieder singers who have revitalised the tradition from the inside. A German, taught by Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf, he is in some ways their natural heir. But what he takes he questions; and if the questioning in this Winterreise got occasionally out of hand, its sheer difference from any interpretation I've ever heard before was astonishing. There is a touch of affectation in his shy-kid-in-the-corner- of-the-playground platform manner, but it becomes part of the story he tells, both vividly and with complete command of its veristic and symbolic truths. On the one hand this is the winter journey of a young man running away from failed love; but in more abstract terms it's the Everyman- like journey of a desperate, death-seeking soul. And from start to finish Gorne never lets you forget that there is a sense of seeking, of progress, though the score. He begins, in "Gute Nacht", at a brisk pace that seems to predict an unsentimentally straightforward reading, but turns out to be the speed of panic, of a young man in the first stages of breakdown: agitated, helpless, looking anxiously to left and right, and startled by the force of the piano introduction to the following "Die Wetterfahne".

As the cycle unfolds, panic gives way to resignation and a final, deadly calm in the encounter with "Der Leiermann". But deadly is the word; and Gorne leaves you in no doubt that these songs sink into an ever-deepening pessimism. Schubert in fact wrote the 24 Winterreise settings in two lots of 12, completing the first at a time when he was in relatively good spirits and the second when his physical and mental health was poor. In the second batch the style is more austere - accompaniments sparer, decoration stripped to nothing - and I've rarely heard a lonelier, more desolately lovely sound than Gorne gives them, making "Das Wirthaus" an inverted climax to the cycle: all the more compelling for its gaunt lines, bloodless tone and a sepulchrally slow pace. The remarkable pianism of Irwin Gage played its part here, with a suppression of the piano's potential for sustaining richness that was positively self-sacrificing. The bare, pointed staccatos of "Gefrorne Tranen" came uncomfortably close to parody. But then, who asks for comfort in Winterreise? Just sublime disturbance.

And staying with that subject, I've just seen Shine, the sad but ultimately feelgood film about the Australian pianist David Helfgott. Films about musicians almost always obscure the real issues in a haze of sentiment - I suppose because the realities of creative or interpretative genius are at odds with what the public want them to be - and Shine doesn't entirely escape that charge. But it does rise above the "Ludwig, play us your wonderful new symphony" school of cinema, and makes by far the least grim music film I've seen in ages. It aggrandises its subject: David Helfgott is presented as an Australian John Ogdon when he was never in that league. Much of the soundtrack is played by Helfgott himself, and if you listen beyond the studio enhancement it isn't that impressive. But the enhancement itself is. Everything you hear has been doctored, but very effectively; and the joins are done with specially composed music (by another Australian, David Hirschfelder) that does a difficult job extremely well. I sat thinking how easily the job might have gone to Michael Nyman, and how certain to become a hit is the obscure but ravishing Vivaldi aria that plays as the final titles roll. Philips have the soundtrack album, and good luck to them.

`Falstaff': Leeds Grand (0113 245 9351), continues Mon & Wed.

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