Scottish Opera: Falstaff

40 Edington Street, Glasgow

There can be no great mystery why Verdi’s last opera has proved so popular in recent years, with productions at New York Met, by Laurent Pelly in France, and most recently with Bryn Terfel singing the title role at Grange Park. What can it be in a work about an over-weight amoral acquisitive sexist boor who gets his come-uppance that resonates so clearly in our times?

Thankfully Sir David McVicar’s new production, destined for Santa Fe Opera via an Edinburgh International Festival run, is not just caricature, and carries a conviction that even if the ensemble sings that life is farce, it has its serious side too.

From a rambunctious start with Roland Wood being rolled to the front of a stage in a bed he is sharing with an improbable number of others alongside his Doll-for-the-night, this is a boisterous, busy show where it pays to keep an eye on all corners of McVicar’s elegant tiered timber set. But all that choreography (by Andrew George) goes alongside some fine characterisation. From his first scene address to Bardolph and Pistol (Jamie MacDougall and Alastair Miles) about ‘honour’, there is a dark malevolence to Wood’s Sir John Falstaff that means he is never a mere figure of fun. That aria also marks the first pinnacle in what is a towering vocal performance, very possibly the baritone’s finest in a career that has already made him a Scottish Opera favourite.

There are a few of those in this cast, including Sioned Gwen Davies from Flight and Nixon in China, who is Meg Page, and Elizabeth Llewellyn, Mimi in the fine Boheme that played this same car park in rather less lavish style last September.

Technically, this Covid-era production at the Scottish Opera Production Centre is a big step up. It is obvious in the staging and audible in the sound, with the orchestra and conductor Stuart Stratford under cover in the building next door but every detail of the orchestration audible through the PA, and perfectly mixed with the voices, solo, ensemble, and chorus, arranged by gender on either side of the stage. Occasionally some words of Amanda Holden’s witty English translation of the libretto may be lost on the wind, but for the most part everyone is clearly audible in a cast of singers without a single weak link, and some other quite exceptional performances, including Gemma Summerfield as Nannetta.

Verdi’s sympathies with the women of Windsor, as opposed to the devious, pompous and sometimes hapless men, are never in doubt. McVicar adds his own sumptuous gloss to that in their costuming: the plot may have the men constantly dressing up to disguise or seduce, but the director gives his female cast members more changes of frock than Beyoncé.

Even that cannot rival the theatricality, all scrupulously in period, that he then unleashes for the final scene at Herne’s Oak in Windsor Park. Verdi’s score famously culminates in a fiendish fugue for all the principals, lined up across the stage, and this staging precedes that with a glorious spectacle of puppetry and costumes that makes Bardolph’s ultimate duping of Caius and Ford in the cause of young love all the more believable.

Keith Bruce