Composer: Guiseppe Verdi
Libretto: Arrigo Boito, based on plays by William Shakespeare
From time-to-time artists and companies set out on a new direction. To be honest some audience members, while admiring the principle might wish they had continued their old approach for a bit longer. One of the guilty pleasures of opera is the opulence, the sheer scale and grandeur of shows which stand out among more restrained theatre projects. For their current’ Green Season’, however, Opera North is using shared scenic elements to create three interlinked yet distinctive designs for each production and either purchasing second hand props, sets and costumes or sourcing them from previous productions.
For Falstaff the approach works like a dream as it coincides with a highly accessible production which challenges the daunting perception of opera as elitist and remote. Sung in English and not only set in the present day but with a very modern interpretation. Falstaff drinks lager and refers to his servants as tosspots and tells them to sod off while Bardolph is dressed in the style of Del Boy.
The recycling theme suits Falstaff as it is clear from the opening the rogue knight has fallen on hard times and is coping with severely reduced circumstances. Falstaff (Henry Waddington) is living in a shabby caravan and even his loyal underlings baulk at his latest scheme as Falstaff proposes to seduce two married women at the same time. It never occurs to him that the ladies in question – Alice Ford (Kate Royal) and Meg Page (Helen Évora) might uncover his plot and not only turn the tables on him but also frustrate a patriarchal plot to marry off a daughter to an unsuitable suitor.
In accordance with the recycling theme Henry Waddington plays Falstaff as someone who has pushed his luck and used up all his resources and is no longer the crafty scoundrel of the past. Waddington avoids the usual interpretation of a tarnished but lovable rogue and instead lectures his underlings in the style of a disappointed schoolteacher and uses his considerable physical weight in a bullying and intimidating manner.
Humour is, however, never far from the surface. Having reached his lowest point at the opening of act three the overweight knight is revived by an offer of alcohol. Falstaff’s famous soliloquy on the dubious benefits of honour is delivered in a suitably serious style undermined by a cheerful bouncy score.
Miles away from Falstaff’s squalid caravan the Merry Wives, in immaculate tennis gear, are clearly capable of running rings around the knight, jealous husbands and anyone else silly enough to try and trick them.
The famous fugue which closes the opera is sung with elegant simplicity as the cast push forward through the stage curtain as if they simply don’t want the show to end and want to share their pleasure with the audience. Whilst it is unclear if Opera North’s current production of Falstaff will benefit the environment it will certainly make audiences feel happier; delighting established fans of opera and attracting newcomers.
15th and 18th November, 2023