Verdi’s Falstaff at Holland Park
Opera Holland Park closes its 2012 season with this buoyant production of Verdi’s last opera. Written when Verdi was almost 80, in a final flash of inspiration, Falstaff showcases the Italian maestro’s characteristic rapidity and richness, crashing through the story of a vain old man making a last stab at passion, and failing in spectacularly comedic style.
Based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV Parts I and II, the work brims with scenes of playfulness, passion and pain – there is no gristle here, just sumptuous sections of pot-bellied gaiety, sexual jealousy and naïve young love which disgusts as much as it delights.
Olafur Sigurdarson steals the show as the pudgy Falstaff, belching and lolloping about the stage with a sort of slimy, infectious charm. As something of an Opera Holland Park veteran – performing in their 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons – Sigurdarson’s rich baritone and virtuoso comic timing draws hysterical laughter and applause. His gleeful self-congratulation in Va, vecchio John is, quite simply, a belly-gripping, belt-snapping, hand-rubbing triumph of a performance, punctuated with a gravity-defying cartwheel and twinkle in the eye.
There were a few wobbly moments in the first act where sharper timing and crisper pacing was required. Once the production gathered momentum, however, it was an unstoppable powerhouse of laughter, trickery, mischief and physical comedy. Although Falstaff is the vehicle of comic action, the merry wives and women have some deliciously mischievous moments as well. As the object of Falstaff’s misguided desire, Alice Ford – sung with glee by Linda Richardson – sparkles with her crisply calculating delivery and feather-light rebuttals of his lecherous advances. As the wives conspire to bring Falstaff down, their four-part vocal work is marvellously shrill and gossipy, and is complemented perfectly by a rapid, choreographed knitting sequence.
Nicky Shaw’s inspired staging, set in the 1940s somewhere between a village fête and a D-Day celebration, with Falstaff the boozy war veteran, is perfectly suited to the opera’s jovial bounciness and brisk, trill-laden orchestration. A strong sense of the aesthetic lends this production a striking and immediate visual power: recurring symbols rebound and refract across the stage, antlers are held above heads to create devilish tableaux.
What is most pleasing about this production is its overriding sense of silliness. To watch pomposity being punctured is undeniably hilarious, and always will be. Annilese Miskimmon’s production plucks out this comic strand and runs with it, tying us up in complex knots until all that’s left to do is laugh – uproariously and unashamedly. After all, as the entire company sings in the opera’s triumphant final fugue, “Tutto nel mondo è burla… Tutti gabbati!” – all the world is a jest, and he who laughs last, laughs best.
Opera Holland Park’s production of Falstaff is performing on 24th, 26th, 28th, 30th July and 1st and 3rd August at 7.30pm.