Monday, 10 June 2019

Sheer enjoyment: Verdi's Falstaff at the Grange Festival

Verdi: Falstaff - Nicholas Lester, Rhian Lois, Elin Pritchard, Angela Simkin, Graham Clark, Alessandro Fisher - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Verdi: Falstaff - Nicholas Lester, Rhian Lois, Elin Pritchard, Angela Simkin, Graham Clark, Alessandro Fisher
The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Verdi Falstaff; Robert Hayward, Elin PRitchard, Rhian Lois, Susan Bickley, Nicholas Lester, Alessandro Fisher, Graham Clark, Christopher Gillett, Petro di Bianco, dir: Christopher Luscombe, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, cond: Francesco Cilluffo Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 June 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A contemporary updating, detailed direction, nimble ensemble and sheer enjoyment

Verdi Falstaff: - Robert Hayward, Nicholas Lester - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Verdi Falstaff: - Robert Hayward, Nicholas Lester
The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
We caught Christopher Luscombe's new production of Verdi's Falstaff at the Grange Festival on Sunday 9 June 2019. Robert Hayward was Falstaff, with Elin Pritchard as Alice Ford, Rhian Lois as Nannetta, Susan Bickley as Mistress Quickly, Angela Simkin as Meg Page, Nicholas Lester as Ford, Alessandro Fisher as Fenton, Graham Clark as Dir Caius, Christopher Gillett as Bardolfo, Pietro di Bianco as Pistola. Francesco Cilluffo conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Luscombe's amazingly detailed production set the opera in the present day, and Simon Higlett's imaginative set made the maximum use of the Grange's stage. The opera opened in a rather naff modern hostelry full of faux-wood, and this slid sideways to reveal the Ford's house with a dock in front (used for comings and goings by steam launch), and the house swung round to reveal the well-equipped kitchen for interior scenes.

The result created a series of striking settings, with swift scene changes, and very much evoked and updated version of the suburbia of Brian Rix farces, and the Fords were prime candidates for inclusion in such a farce. Though in fact, this was no farce but a highly detailed comedy. Falstaff (Robert Hayward) was an ageing hippy, all hair, beard, loud loose clothes and bare feet, you felt that the present Marquess of Bath was perhaps one of the role's inspirations!

What was delightful about evening was the way that Luscombe's updating and carefully detailed direction made the piece work so well in its present day setting. There were lots of incidental delights; there was a real credit card machine, the 'boys' who shift the laundry basket are in fact workmen there to fit a new washer, Falstaff's damp entry at the beginning of Act Three is made to the inn's riveside patio complete with a classic pub table.

But what made the evening work was the lightness that everyone brought to the performance, the sense of ensemble and the sheer enjoyment that the cast exhibited. The comedy had no particular axe to grind, simply the enjoyment of the vagaries and mores of the world.

Robert Hayward made a delightful Falstaff, an old roue who has no idea that he is ridiculous but who can scrub up well (for his Act Two seduction scene) when needed. Hayward made Falstaff's self-absorbtion an enjoyable part of his routine and his nimble performance was the centrepiece which anchored the production. The opening of Act Three was both moving and funny, whilst the final scene enabled him to get a nice sense getting one back.

Verdi Falstaff: - Rhian Lois, Alessandro Fisher - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Verdi Falstaff: - Rhian Lois, Alessandro Fisher - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Elin Pritchard was a lively and characterful, young Alice ably partnered by the Rhian Lois' delightful and rather knowing Nanetta, with Susan Bickley as a far younger and less staid Quickly than usual with characterful support from Angela Simkin as Meg. But more than individual performances, it was the sense of ensemble which the four women brought to the piece which made for such joy.

Hayward's Falstaff was supported, if that is the right word, by the mismatched duo of Christopher Gillett's wonderful old soak of a Bardolfo and Pietro di Bianco's youthfully attractive but profoundly untrustworthy Pistola.

Alessandro Fisher sang Fenton with such a beautifully suave and seductive sense of line that you wished he got more to sing, but he and Lois made an enchanting pair. Nicholas Lester as Ford, kept the character's more serious moments on the right side of comedy so that his intensity never overbalanced things. This Ford was finely sung, moving in his jealousy and very funny. The veteran tenor Graham Clark gave a superb account of Dr Caius, making much of the little written for the role.

Francesco Cilluffo and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra kept things lively and nimble in the pit, adding to the productions delightfully pointed atmosphere. Though some of Cilluffo's tempi rather challenge the ensembles and there were moments when stage and pit got out.

Verdi Falstaff: - Nicholas Lester, Susan Bickley, Elin Pritchard, Angela Simkin - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Verdi Falstaff - Nicholas Lester, Susan Bickley, Elin Pritchard, Angela Simkin
The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Verdi's Falstaff is swift, light, delicate and complex, and this delightful performance did it full justice as it zipped along without ever making the comedy into farce or neglecting the more serious moments. The beauty of this performance was the combination of Luscombe's highly detailed direction and the sense of sheer enjoyment from the ensemble.

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