Sir John in Love

Barbican Hall, London

On Sunday afternoon Richard Hickox directed a performance of Vaughan Williams's that will long remain in the memory. Like Hugh the Drover, music from which we heard earlier in this Visions of Albion festival, this marvellous work could also be called a ballad opera. It is simply packed with entrancing, self-contained melody, and the dramatic narrative and characterisations develop through song forms, to which the composer brings an extraordinary range and variety of emotion, encompassing the romance of Anne Page and Fenton as successfully as the robust comedy of Falstaff's adventures.

It is a mark of that range that by purely lyrical means he can build the opera to a climax at the end of Act 4 with a marriage song whose intensity of emotion caps all that has gone before. The lyric structuring might give the opera a formal air, but an imaginative production would show that it is not stiff in its dramatic progress. When will one of our opera companies stage it?

In a work rich in character roles, Hickox's outstanding cast rose to the occasion splendidly. At their head was Donald Maxwell's magnificent Falstaff, ripely comic yet capable of gallantry and even romantic dreams. The Merry Wives - Susan Gritton and Pamela Helen Stephen - were sparkling, with Anne-Marie Owens' Mistress Quickly in firm support. Matthew Best's smouldering Ford added depth, and the young lovers were sweetly presented by Nancy Argenta and Mark Padmore.

Among the supporting roles, the splendid Adrian Thompson created an absolutely priceless Dr Caius complete with French accent, while Stephen Varcoe made a suitably parsonical Sir Hugh; John Bowen, Brian Bannatyne-Scott and Richard Lloyd Morgan conjured a rascally Bardolph, Pistol and Nym. The choruses that play so important a part in the work were warmly sung by the Joyful Company of Singers. And the Northern Sinfonia responded to both the weight and the airiness of Vaughan Williams's orchestral texture with affecting poetry.