Review: Falstaff, by Mid-Wales Opera at Theatr Hafren, Newtown (Powys)
Making virtue out of necessity has long been of of Mid-Wales Opera’s strengths (limited home-base surroundings, touring to venues even more restricted, funding considerations perennially important), and MWO’s current presentation of Verdi’s Falstaff rides out all these limitations triumphantly.
Here we are allowed to concentrate on what is actually a wonderful ensemble opera, with its tiny cast so busy and willing, its reduced orchestra sparkling and zestful under Nicholas Cleobury’s well-paced conducting (sometimes too forward-driven, with important changes of mood – such as Falstaff’s reminiscences of himself as a slender young page to the Duke of Norfolk – clouded in the transition), and Martin Lloyd-Evans’ direction a model of wit and inventiveness.
This is a modern-day production, no doublet and hose, no farthingales, and for some reason which I would like explained to me, it seems to be happening in 1981. Bridget Rimak’s stage-design is resourceful and pragmatic (another of MWO’s raised circular ramps, but it works yet again).
I’m not convinced about her costumes, Alice Ford (one of Windsor’s great ladies) sporting a puff-ball skirt, gorgeous legs and high-heels and looking far too young to have a teenage daughter, Nannetta.
Pistol, too, is got up like a has-been John Travolta, continually back-combing his hair.
Never mind: the action is continually engaging, the laundry-basket scene is brilliantly carried out, and, because of the understated emphasis upon character, Verdi’s magnificent score (what a way to end your composing career at the age of 80) emerges as triumphantly as it deserves – and what wonderful lightness of ensemble.
Charles Johnston is an endearing Falstaff, scarcely an overweight degenerate old fool, but more a person who has known earlier times of importance and can’t cope nowadays with being a nobody.
His girth is played down, apart from a wonderful coup de theatre when a huge tablecloth-cum-napkin is rolled up and stuffs his shirt to the enhancement of his portliness.
Lee Bisset sings too forcefully in Alice Ford’s top notes, but as her daughter Nannetta Martene Grimson commands the high registers enchantingly.
Ford himself (Wyn Pencarreg) is mightily sympathetic, and of the other characters Gaynor Keeble is sensationally witty, perky and smart in her beautifully-vocalised Mistress Quickly. Catrin Johnsson succeeds in making Meg Page, so often a cipher, a viable character for once.
Amanda Holden is a translator par excellence, but I have sometimes taken issue with her, and here is no exception.
Occasionally the turns of phrase here descend below the social class of the characters, and her changing of the hour of assignation between Falstaff and Alice to suit the scansion could easily have been avoided.
“Two o’clock until three” (instead of “from eleven to twelve”, her expedient solution) would have preserved both Verdi’s time-scale and word-setting perfectly.
* Falstaff also appears at Theatre Severn Shrewsbury (September 23), Roses Theatre Tewkesbury (September 30), Palace Theatre Redditch (October 2), The Courtyard Hereford (October 6), Assembly Rooms Ludlow (November 12 and 13).