For their last new production of the season which opened on 21 July, Opera Holland Park turned to an opera which has never been performed there, Verdi's Falstaff with the title role sung by Olafur Sigurdarson, something of an Opera Holland Park favourite, though in serious dramatic roles rather than buffo ones. The production was directed by another Opera Holland Park regular, Annilese Miskimmon and designed by Nicky Shaw. Shaw's set looked promising, against the backdrop of Holland Park House, there were a number of houses, in simple schematic building block forms. Simple and striking, and as Holland Park House dates from 1605, this was very apt.
Conductor Peter Robinson, with the City of London Sinfonia in the pit, started a lively and incisive account of the prelude, supers turned one of the houses round to reveal a mock-Tudor interior with a down at heel Falstaff (Sigurdarson) in pyjamas and dressing-gown, with medals on his chest, busy typing a letter. We were back in the 1950's.
For some reason, producers do like to set Falstaff in the 1950's. I suppose it is because Shakespeare's original play is very much a satire on the burgeoning middle-classes and this can be made to transfer to the period. But it does make the final scene rather difficult to bring off convincingly. Miskimmon and Shaw had a few other odd apercus as well.
The first oddity was that Falstaff, Pistol (Simon Wilding) and Bardolf (Brian Galliford) were all clearly in a home for retired and injured ex-soldiers. The first scene included a lot of business with distressingly injured soldiers in wheel-chairs, but this was not developed further. Ford (George von Bergen) and Alice (Linda Richardson) seemed to live in a town full of Anglican vicars. Ford himself was the rector and Dr. Caius (Christopher Turner) his curate, with most of the men of the chorus in dog-collars. When the men were not in dog collars they work cricket whites. This Windsor seemed to be a town full of 1950's stereotypes. Oh, and yes, we got a lot of tweeds. For some reason, when Quickly (Carole Wilson), went to see Falstaff she dressed as a nun.
I never did quite fathom what Miskimmon was trying to tell us. Falstaff is a perfectly constructed piece and doesn't need any help. Verdi's score and Boito's libretto form a nicely constructed machine in their own right. If the piece is about anything, it is about class. Though Verdi and Boito rather lose the point that Ford disapproves of Fenton because Fenton is an outsider from the court, they still keep the idea that Falstaff is a Knight. Down at heel, true, but he still comes with grand court attitudes and he is convinced of his superiority. Miskimmon rather played this down.
Whilst it was clear that Pistol and Bardolf were ex-NCO's it wasn't quite clear what rank Falstaff had had. This meant that instead of being about class, it was about the sheer self-importance and bumptiousness of Sigurdarson's Falstaff. And Sigurdarson was supremely self-important and bumptious, hilariously so; the sight of him capering off stage, in uniform, to woo Alice was priceless.
But Miskimmon introduced another element, that of physical comedy. This production was very funny, not through exploration of the characters and their foibles, but because all involved were physically funny. The cast all entered into this with a will, particularly Sigurdarson, and the result was at times closer to farce. This was a shame because, when Miskimmon reined herself in and simply gave us stylised movement, it was very expressive. A glimpse of another Falstaff came in moments like the ensemble in Act 2 where the men and the women simultaneously plot, here Miskimmon's blocking helped clarify things.
But elsewhere, there was just too much funny business. The scene with Falstaff in the Ford's house degenerated into TV sitcom land and by the time Falstaff was tipped into the river we'd had so much physical comedy that it was simply one more event. And Quickly's interview with Falstaff was similarly plagued; a shame because Wilson's pregnantly rounded vocal tones were wonderfully expressive.
Musically, this was a well sung performance, starting with Sigurdarson's finely sung through account of the title role. His was a serious, musical account of the part and would have fitted in nicely in a more serious performance (after all Richard Eyre's production at Covent Garden played the piece almost straight). In the pit, Robinson and the orchestra gave us a finely played, lively and incisive account; seriously musical, it was hardly the sound-track to the antics and capers on stage. So there was something of a disjoint.
Linda Richardson and Carolyn Dobbin were lively and attractive as Alice and Meg, with Richardson giving hints that in different circumstances Alice might have found an extra marital affair not unwelcome. George van Bergen was simply not worryingly scary or creepy enough when playing Brook, there was too much sitcom-esque comedy and not enough of the pain underneath. Rhona McKail and Benjamin Hulett was delightful as the lovers, contributing some lovely lyric moments. Galliford and Wilding were extremely game as Bardolf and Pistol, up for anything Miskimmon gave them and singing as well.
Many of the cast displayed a gift for comedy which would have been enjoyable if reined in slightly. Wilson was wonderfully pregnant as Quickly and Sigurdarson clearly demonstrated that someone ought to try him out in some other buffo roles. Richardson was extremely convincing (and rather funny) in Alice's adventures in sit-com land in the second act.
When it came to the final scene, to her credit Miskimmon did not shirk and we got the scene as Verdi and Boito intended with the inhabitants of Windsor dressed as fairies. In these final scenes, Miskimmon's gift for physical comedy reaped its rewards as she hilariously mapped out the action in physical terms.
It was clear from the audience reaction that most people did not share my opinion of the production and that Miskimmon and Shaw had gauged things correctly. But for me, Falstaff is a subtle comedy of character, not one of belly laughs, and it works best when taken seriously. The shame was that musically, Peter Robinson, singers and orchestra took the piece with the utmost seriousness and gave a strong account of the score. But on stage things too often degenerated into Dad's Army, so much so that you wondered why Nicolai's Die lustige Witwe von Windsor hadn't been chosen instead.
See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012
City of London Festival 2012