Everything you need to know about Falstaff, which is available to watch online for free as part of Glyndebourne Open House on Sunday 26 July
In this instalment of our Introducing series we explore Richard Jones’ zany production.
Falstaff is part of Glyndebourne Open House – a weekly series of free operas, available on YouTube.
A brief introduction:
In 1889, after a long career composing tragedies and dark, knotty dramas, the 76-year-old Verdi turned his attention to a comedy – and not just any comedy, but Shakespeare’s intricate comedy of manners The Merry Wives of Windsor with its larger-than-life hero Sir John Falstaff. Described by Richard Strauss as ‘one of the greatest masterworks of all time’, Falstaff was to be the last of Verdi’s operas, a swan-song of defiant old-age. As last laughs go, it’s been a pretty long one.
In Falstaff, Verdi creates a comedy as quick on its feet as the knight’s own fairy tormentors. Turning on a sixpence, the action and mood move from psychological melodrama to broad comedy, tenderness and back again with barely a breath to spare. The opera glints and gleans with romance, as Nannetta and Fenton must snatch their love in a series of fleeting encounters, scattering the score with their lyrical comedy ‘as one sprinkles sugar over a pie’.
But the true heart of the opera lies in its extraordinary ensemble writing. In the skilfully executed group numbers the voices are meshed with ever-increasingly intricacy into five, six and even nine-part constructions.
A celebration of Shakespeare’s anti-hero, Verdi and Boito’s Falstaff is an opera of belly-laughs – just not necessarily the kind you’d expect. Astringent in its humour, farcical rather than actual farce, this is Shakespearean comedy at its most authentic: joyous, wise and endlessly inventive.
Why not to miss it:
Director Richard Jones (most recently seen at Glyndebourne in 2019 with his ‘beguiling’ La damnation de Faust) transforms Verdi’s Elizabethan comedy into a quick-footed post-war romp – less Tudor than mock-Tudor. There’s something of the tightly controlled anarchy of an Ealing comedy to this 1940s drama that sets the pleasure-seeking Falstaff loose among the pretension-clinging and tradition-upholding community of economically straitened Windsor, where Mistress Quickly becomes a stalwart of the Territorial Army and Fenton a lovesick GI.
Hailed by one critic as, ‘a five-star production if ever there was one’, Jones’ Falstaff is ‘subtle and entertaining’, ‘a masterpiece of comic timing’ and ‘an effervescent reading of the opera that gets everything right’. This is a production that, ‘looks wonderful, plays absolutely naturally and dazzles musically’.
A great moment to look out for:
Falstaff is an opera celebrated for its comedy, but the wit of Alice Ford and her co-conspirators, the pomposity of Falstaff himself and the tangled intrigues of the finales are all set in relief by the work’s lyricism and sweetness. We hear this most strikingly in the music of the young lovers Nanetta and Fenton.
In Act III we find ourselves in Windsor Great Park, where Alice and the others have set the scene for Falstaff’s punishment. Dressed up as fairies they plan to tease and torment the would-be lover. Nanetta, disguised as the Queen of the Fairies, takes the leading role, weaving her musical spell in a silvery, gossamer-light aria in which her high-lying line floats high above delicate strings and chorus accompaniment. It’s a musical picture of moonlight, as magical and other-worldly as the action that follows is earthily comic.
Cast and creative team:
Former Glyndebourne music director Vladimir Jurowski conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a ‘crisp and responsive’ account of Verdi’s final score, ‘phrased with exquisite care and balance’ and ‘needle-sharp finesse’.
Glyndebourne favourite Christopher Purves leads the cast in a ‘wonderful portrayal’ of the amorous Falstaff, singing ‘with style and assurance’. He’s matched and out-witted by Dina Kuznetsova’s Alice, bringing ‘natural warmth’ to her clear-eyed scheming with Jennifer Holloway’s Meg, who ‘never puts a foot wrong’ and Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s ‘delightful’ and ‘truly expressive’ Mistress Quickly.
Bringing romance to the story, singing some of Verdi’s most lyrical and bewitching music, are soprano Adriana Kučerová as Nanetta (‘a knock-out’) and young Turkish tenor Bülent Bezdüz as Fenton.
Image credits: Falstaff, Festival 2009 | Alastair Muir