How fitting that, just when the theatrical and literary worlds are marking four hundred years since the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, Opera North should bring out a new production of Verdi's Falstaff.
The multi-coloured strips that form the drop curtain rise to reveal Henry Waddington's Falstaff outside his caravan home, shabby but still genteel, and still able to put the booze away. The pair of deer's antlers hanging on the outside of the caravan even has a built-in bottle-opener (more about the antlers later). His hangers-on, Colin Judson's bolshy Bardolph and Dean Robinson's lugubrious Pistol, add to the disreputable set-up, riling Paul Nilon's fuss-pot Dr Caius mercilessly. When Bardolph and Pistol refuse to take Falstaff's letters to the merry wives themselves, Alice and Meg, Waddington invests Falstaff's diatribe against their concept of honour with real scorn.
Later, his 'Go, old Sir Jack', in Amanda Holden's English translation, is self-confident the first time, as he relishes the prospect of an assignation with Alice, and rueful when, the image of dejection at the start of Act III, he rails against a declining world after he is tipped into the river at the end of Act II.
In Director Olivia Fuchs' 1980s-set production, the merry wives and their associates are regulars on the tennis court, emblematic of their aspirational life-style. Kate Royal's Alice Ford is clearly in command of the situation, as she compares Falstaff's letters with Helen Évora's Meg Page, an eager accomplice in plotting his come-uppance. Louise Winter's wily Mistress Quickly is a smooth operator in her go-between role.
Isabelle Peters and Egor Zhuravskii bring a winning freshness to their roles as the lovers Nannetta and Fenton – wary, almost on edge in company, relaxed when alone together.
Peters is a gleeful co-conspirator with Alice, Meg and Quickly, miserable at the prospect of being married off to Caius, and a radiant Queen of the Faries in the Windsor Forest scene. Zhuravskii brings a winning light touch to his love aria at the start of that scene. As Alice's jealous husband, Ford, Richard Burkhard storms and blusters credibly at the prospect of being cuckolded.
Olivia Fuchs fills the stage with movement when appropriate – as Ford searches for Falstaff in his house, for instance – and creates magical stillness at the start of the climactic last scene. And she comes up with a particularly ingenious staging for the moment when Falstaff is tipped into the river, letting our imaginations, and that drop-curtain, do some of the work. For the final fugue, the drop-curtain falls, and as each character enters, they step through it, until the entire cast has appeared at the front of the stage. In another neat touch, the sound of Alice's lute, as she waits for Falstaff, comes from a portable cassette player.
Leslie Travers' sets and Gabrielle Dalton's costumes play their exuberant part in Opera North's current green season – everything is re-used from earlier productions, or makes use of found objects – the caravan was abandoned on a Leeds car park; the antlers, most of which go to construct the oak tree round which the final scene takes place, were shed naturally by the deer at Harewood House, West Yorkshire.
Amanda Holden's translation mostly works well, though there are moments when it doesn't quite go hand-in-glove with Verdi's note-values, and a reference to shillings, anachronistic for this production's period setting, should have been tweaked. Still, a lot can be forgiven a translator who can rhyme 'danger' with 'hydrangea'.
Conductor Garry Walker, Opera North's Music Director, gets the orchestral introduction off to a fizzing start, and he and the Opera North orchestra navigate the changes of pace adroitly, relishing Verdi's miraculous orchestration, particularly the gleaming colours of the Windsor Forest scene.
It's not the least miraculous aspect of this life-affirming piece, and Opera North's staging bubbles over with all the warmth, good humour, wit and sheer humanity Verdi conjures up as he takes his last theatrical bow.
Copyright © 15 November 2023