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Authentic Falstaff

19 May

Let me begin by urging anyone interested in great Verdian music-making to snap up seats for Glyndebourne’s present revival of Falstaff before everyone else does.  The first night (19th May) struck me as among the very finest performances of the opera that I’ve come across.

Ostensibly the reason for it being particularly worth a detour is the fact that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is in the pit, playing on instruments or replicas of instruments none of which were made or designed later than 1893.  Presumably this hasn’t happened since the war.  I admire the OAE hugely, but without Mark Elder leading them, I wonder if they would have made it so special.  There are some things that you notice that are particular to the orginal instruments – the slightly more pungent sound to the woodwind, the edgier brass – which add a freshness, or something that you observe as  a keen listener.  What Elder brings is the deep knowledge of the score (he conducts at least half of it with the score in front of him closed) and his knowledge of Verdi and sense of the way that the music highlights the drama.  There is probably also something about the articulation needed to play those instruments which helps his performance sound so “right”.  When Falstaff is talking about Alice and Meg in the first scene, Elder gets a slight mushiness about the strings that suggests an element of sexual excitement.  He also brings out the different strands of the score with a clarity that I simply haven’t heard since Carlos Kleiber did Otello 25 years ago.  It’s a score with lots going on, much of it at the same time: Elder lets you hear the different layers, the counterpoint, without distracting you by accenting details just for the sake of them.  The phrasing is superb – he catches the way different parts of the orchestra carry forward individual phrases from each other and he weaves them into a clear tapestry.  He paces it marvellously – tempi sound natural – and manages the climaxes fabulously well – the build up of the Act II finale, or Ford’s monologue or, indeed, Falstaff’s honour monologue, are done with you barely noticing.  He catches the wit and the joy of the score.  The OAE plays outstandingly.  I love Falstaff very much.  This is my 14th visit and I play it frequently on CD.  I’ve not heard so much or gained so much musical pleasure in any other performance.  Can Glyndebourne please revive the Hall Otello for him and the OAE?

It helps also that there’s a really good cast and Richard Jones’s marvellous production.  The latter has been rehearsed by Sarah Fahie.  It comes up as freshly as ever.  I find his 1946 setting of mock-Tudor houses, English pubs and shady characters a very satisfactory setting for the opera.  What makes it special is the wonderful timing and choreography.  I don’t think that I’ve seen so brilliantly directed a second scene where, simply by listening to music and having a simply device of, essentially, three levels, Jones manages a staging which dazzles just as much as the music.  The movements are wonderfully timed and go very much with the very precise with of the score.  There are the nice flourishes – the cats, the rowers going through Ford’s garden, the brownies, the swans, all of which add to the joy without distracting from the essence.  Its only flaw seems to me that the last scene is a bit bare and that he could find a bit more cruelty – I wanted a bit more invention but, to be fair, the opera also hangs fire a bit.

The leading roles are all new for this revival.  Laurent Naouri did not, on paper, strike me as an obvious Falstaff, but he confounded my doubts.  He has a richness and depth to the voice that his predecessor here lacked and he gave a beautifully detailed performance of a vain, pub bore – always alert, always finding some detailed piece of acting.  Was it coincidence that he looked just a little like Nigel Farage?  Roman Burdenko was a splendid Ford who did his jealousy aria very intelligently.

The women were good.  Ailyn Perez is an alert Alice, who sings her soaring phrases beautifully and catches the intelligence of the woman.  Susanne Resmark has a lovely, full mezzo for Quickly and was just as funny as her predecessor.  Elena Tsallagova was a sweet Nanetta and Lucia Cirillo a good Meg.

Antonio Poli, as Fenton, sounded slightly dry in his last act aria but did the remainder well and relished the production.  Graham Clark was luxury casting as Dr Caius while Colin Judson and Paolo Battaglia were back and excellent as Bardolph and Pistol.  It looked like a happy cast, enjoying itself.

So this was an evening that didn’t put a foot wrong.  Falstaff tends to work well at Glyndebourne because it’s an ensemble piece and benefits from the preparation they can provide.  Here, with Elder, it became very special indeed.  Glyndebourne already have a (good) Falstaff in their CD series, but it would be marvellous if they could issue one from this series as a souvenir of a classically fine evening.  In any case, you should try to get to it if you can.