EIF: Falstaff

Festival Theatre

For those in the audience for whom this was a longed-for return to live opera in front of an audience in a theatre, to cavil at all is absurd, but the truth is that Sir David McVicar’s new production of Verdi’s last opera sat much more comfortably in a car-park. The director’s own designs took full advantage of the environment at Scottish Opera’s technical centre in Glasgow’s Edington Street, and will doubtless do so again when the show reaches the semi-outdoor space of US co-producer Santa Fe Opera.

From the absence of the ribald sleaze in the arrival of Sir John’s busy bed onstage at the opera’s opening to the closing pageant of costumes and puppetry in Windsor Park, making still-magical stage pictures but lacking the spooky edge of happening in the real outdoors, this was a contained version of the show that opened a month ago. Rather than rebuilding a Shakespearean theatre, the set is an image of one within a proscenium arch.

That said, there are obvious advantages to being back in the opera house. This production has become a sort-of-tribute to the late Graham Vick, who died from complications of Covid-19 after it opened. The company’s controversial director of productions in the 1980s, he commissioned both Amanda Holden’s English libretto and Jonathan Dove’s reduced orchestration when he founded Birmingham Touring Opera in 1987. Both are displayed (surtitles included) to much better advantage this time around, with the orchestra behind the singers and set on the Festival Theatre’s huge stage (although still, I think, amplified). The balance between voices and instruments is more or less perfect throughout, and the detail of Verdi’s music, which was already very well played, even more clearly audible. The same goes for the clarity of the text, and Holden’s superb choral cry of “Apotheosis!” ranks with Kid Creole’s Coconuts singing “Onomatopoeia” in the canon of Great Backing Vocals of the 1980s.

That chorus is now located in the wings, and where the canal-side trees were revealed behind the set in Edington Street, the orchestra is now revealed to the audience in the last act. The singing of the cast remains as fine as ever, and it is a particular joy to hear Roland Wood’s full-voiced characterful baritone without a microphone in the title role. His is a very considered and rounded portrayal of Falstaff, even in the broadest slapstick-comedy moments. When he sings of the “harvest of my late summer” it is impossible not to apply that to the work’s composer as well, and Scottish Opera does that achievement proud in this staging.

Keith Bruce