Falstaff (Opera North) at Theatre Royal
Think of Verdi and the word “comedy” doesn’t immediately come to mind (though an early operatic attempt, “Un Giorno di Regno”, is still occasionally revived.) Towards the end of his life, however, he composed a final opera that is big on belly laughs (deliberate pun – Sir John sings in defence of his mighty abdomen) by writing “Falstaff” in collaboration with librettist Boito. The character is of course Shakespeare’s, and the plot adapts “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, where the Bard pitted his elderly aristocratic rogue against the jolly, well-heeled middle-class ladies whose good sense and good humour would win out against both jealous husbands and low-life chisellers. Opera North has set this new production in the money-obsessed 1980s when upward mobility meant loads-a-cash, allowing the obese, down at heel aristo Sir John Falstaff to see bored, wealthy housewives as low-hanging fruit to be plucked and exploited by the allure of his aristocratic status. While managing to be broad and knockabout (there’s a Keystone Cops vibe to the scene where suspicious husband Ford brings in the police) the humour also manages to be collusive, as the audience is invited to measure the short-fall between Falstaff’s view of himself and how he appears to the canny women.
As this is part of the company’s Green Season there’s a sense of raiding the props cupboard and recycling old sets (the Fords’ grand windows hail memorably from “The Marriage of Figaro”.) The cramped vintage caravan (complete with cocktail bar) that Falstaff occupies in a pub garden was picked up second-hand from, amazingly enough, a pub garden and the several pairs of antlers setting the spooky scene in Windsor Great Park were all donated by opera-loving deer who were upgrading to new, improved sets (Seriously, they are naturally shed on an annual basis, so no deer were harmed in the making of this production, except possibly the small stuffed one who observes the action.) As I happened to see the opera on Halloween, that final scene where Falstaff is frightened out of his wits by fairies and spectres (well, the rest of the cast in fancy dress from Harrods) was right on target, with its mood of moonlight mischief emphasised by the lyrical aria sung by Nanetta ( Isabelle Peters) as Queen of the Fairies and the sharp wit of a complex final fugue bringing home the message, ably conveyed by Henry Waddington’s surprisingly amiable Falstaff, that you might as well laugh.