FALSTAFF. Guiseppe Verdi


Review by Polly Hope

I suppose enchanting is a bit obvious to say about FALSTAFF, but it is, and not just when the fairies show up, but all the way through. Shakespeare's only original story and a bit of apot boiler written to amuse his Queen Elizabeth, butwith miraculous music.Verdi has transformed a rather banal tale of suburban house wives into an exquisite magical story of the woes of getting old and the complications of the class system in England. It all makes very good sense and is loads of fun.

Shakespeare is everywhere this year, we in London can't quite focus on what all the celebrations are for, there are just so many of them. The Queen's Jubilee for sixty years hanging in there wearing the crown, then the Olympic Games, nobody is quite sure why a bankrupt country such as Britain should be going billions more into debt for this prank, and Shakespeare is everywhere in this Keep Britain Afloat year. So even our grandest opera house is joining the celebrations.

Falstaff was Verdi's last opera, he wrote it when a very old man and goodness how he improved on WS. The music is exquisite, heart breakingly beautiful, the music of a composer possibly twenty-five years old not in his eighties as Verdi was.

From the moment the curtain rises in a whoosh of chords the audience is transported on a magic carpet of the sweetest sounds. Difficult word sweet, but it is so, sweet not cloggy and sentimental, nor quiet and peaceful. A sweetness that is strong and happy making.

The opera openswith Falstaff in bed in the'Star and Garter' hostelry some time in the 1950s. Tables of food are everywhere; in fact food is the theme throughout, after all Falstaff does sing a lot about the pleasures of eating and the need to keep his size in tact. We move to a gentleman's club, all wood paneling with sporting prints for decoration. Then to Alice Ford's magnificent kitchen with 1950's equipment, and finally Hern's forest full of horned spirits. Falstaff appears riding a horse; a real live very large mare. The audience loves this and the entire house cheers.

Many critics have been niggardly and mean about this production but they are a sad and a very wrong lot, for it is all a delight. Daniele Gatti conducts and the opera house orchestra even excelsits usual brilliance. Robert Carsen directs with aplomb, all so clear and witty. Ambrogio Maestri sings Falstaff, he is every inch the old fashioned English gent; first in tweeds and then, for his attempted seduction of Alice, resplendent in hunting pink complete with silk top hot and high black boots.

None of the cast is English yet they all excel in purveying Englishness, dodgy Bardolf and Pistol both seemingly direct from London's shady East End. Alice and Meg suburban housewives wishing they could climb the social ladder and marry a Knight. Ford himself the not quitetop of the pile banker. And vast Falstaff using his knighthood as a win all card. All is perfectly observed and balanced.

Verdi of course is ultimately responsible for it all, his music says everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. He catches every nuance and the lovely cast doesn't miss a note. A joyous summer event and if you can squeeze your way in through any of London's airports don't miss this.