Verdi meets The Queen Vic: an uproarious Falstaff from Fulham Opera

[L-R] Oliver Gibbs as Ford, Keel Watson as Falstaff, Catharine Rogers as Alice Ford. Photography by Mark Storey

[L-R] Oliver Gibbs as Ford, Keel Watson as Falstaff, Catharine Rogers as Alice Ford. Photography by Mark Storey

Fulham Opera’s Falstaff opens in a modern day pub: crisps are on the table, children are playing with mobile phones, and Falstaff himself is in tracksuit bottoms. It’s effectively a case of Verdi meets The Queen Vic, soaked in a London underworld atmosphere of wideboys, semi-functional alcoholics and glossy Essex beauties. Directed by Daisy Evans, the action has a casual and naturalistic freshness, giving Falstaff’s twisty plot a good airing, and finding humour at every turn, while some strong singing and acting from the cast keep us charmed musically. Ben Woodward, conducting a small orchestra of twelve players, manages to fill St John’s Church with sound, immersing us in Verdi’s final, extraordinary masterpiece.

Ben Woodward conducting. Photography by Matthew Coughlan

Ben Woodward conducting. Photography by Matthew Coughlan

And this really is the reason to go to any Fulham Opera production: it is a profoundly engaging, welcoming opera experience. Before your fears arise, I do not mean you’ll be dragged into any sort of audience participation, or gimmicky interval interactivity; but rather, the down-to-earth and utterly unpretentious atmosphere of this small, committed company always seems to percolate through to the audience, allowing everyone to stop worrying and simply enjoy it. The interval, consequently, is always buzzing with conversation: opera newcomers, total strangers, and lifelong arts cognoscenti all striking up casual discussions about tonight’s production, or anything else that occurs, over a glass of wine poured by a volunteer who may well also be a singer, in a spirit of openness and friendship I have never encountered in any other opera audience. That sense of warmth and intimacy extends into the performances, too: St John’s Church is not particularly small, but the way Fulham Opera uses the space (focusing on the sanctuary, but also using the aisle, the pillars and even the back of the church for parts of the action) ensures everyone gets a great view, no matter where they are sitting. Projected surtitles (Ruth Elleson) allow everyone to see the fun, slightly naughty translation by Jonathan Finney (“Curses on all barmen who serve crap wine… We should have Parliament create a tax on bastards”); and a well-researched programme (also by Jonathan Finney) puts the work in its context: in short, you could not feel closer to an opera.

Falstaff is, however, an opera which for many years was the late-born ugly duckling among Verdi’s flock of graceful, international blockbuster swans: historically, audiences have not taken to it to their hearts. Firstly, it’s a comedy: his only one (well, his second, but the first was a disaster, written early on and at a time of great personal tragedy). Many audiences simply couldn’t accept the great tragic master turning finally to the funny side, rather like Quentin Tarantino deciding to make a delicate rom-com in his dotage. Secondly, its rapid development of plot and musical ideas (much more Wagnerian in style, with flowing dramatic action rather than a traditional balance of recitative and great arias) made many feel it wasn’t “true” Verdi. Indeed, musically, Falstaff is so rich in invention, so groundbreaking structurally in comparison to Verdi’s other works, that it is humbling to think that he was actually in his late seventies, in poor health, and nearing death, when he wrote it. Falstaff is no old man’s nostalgia: it is Verdi’s (accurate) vision of the future of his art form, powered by his lifelong love of Shakespeare.

Oliver Gibbs (L) as Ford (disguised as "Fontana"); Keel Watson (R) as Falstaff. Photography by Matthew Coughlan.

Oliver Gibbs (L) as Ford (disguised as “Fontana”), and Keel Watson (R) as Falstaff pose for a selfie as they leave the Garter Inn. Photography by Matthew Coughlan.

It is also extremely, viscerally funny in the right hands, always hinging on the title role, and Keel Watson gives us a brilliant portrayal of Sir John Falstaff, sharply physical and deftly delivered. Watson balances his buffoonery with a sense of poised muscularity, implying that Falstaff is someone genuinely to be reckoned with, not merely an egotistical drunk. But Watson also gives us Falstaff’s magnificent, reality-obscuring vanity, which has almost a touch of innocence about it: he is so delightfully convinced of his own fabulousness that we can forgive him, even as he wipes his sweaty forehead with one loveletter and coughs on the other, or caddishly rewards Mistress Quickly (much to her bemusement) with a Bounty bar. Watson’s voice is full of centred energy, untiring and rich throughout, delivering his “L’onore” aria (and many others) with genuine and well-timed humour.

Oliver Gibbs is excellent as Ford, his suave scheming turning suddenly into furious outrage as he begins to suspect his beloved Alice might really be involved with Falstaff after all – not realising she is executing her own cunning plan. Gibbs seems entirely natural and comfortable in Verdi, showing the strength, breadth and colours of his voice, his performance always driven by the natural drama of his music. Gibbs also incorporates strong physical comedy when disguised as “Fontana”, nicking Falstaff’s pint of lager with impenetrable friendliness, holding it well out of his reach while he spins his tale, then finally downing it (much to Falstaff’s silent fury). As his wife, Catharine Rogers’ beautiful voice and delightfully mischievous performance make for a memorably quick-witted and redoubtable Alice Ford, her singing truly breathtaking.

Roberto Abate is show-stealingly good as Fenton, while Caroline Kennedy makes a vulnerably sweet Nanetta, their scenes together full of fervid adolescent and shy, sly glances which imply real chemistry. Fenton and Nanetta’s duets, brief but beautiful, show us what true love can be – contrasting with Falstaff’s mercenary opportunism. On their own, Abate and Kennedy shine in their own arias: two young singers well worth following.

Roberto Abate (L) and Caroline Kennedy (R)  as Fenton and Nanetta. Photography by Matthew Coughlan.

Roberto Abate (L) and Caroline Kennedy (R) as Fenton and Nanetta. Photography by Matthew Coughlan.

The smaller roles are also good. As Falstaff’s sidekicks, Jonathan Finney (Bardolph) and Antoine Salmon (Pistol) are amusing and enjoyable, Finney’s great characterisation always providing plenty of humour and Salmon’s huge voice almost taking the audience by surprise with its unexpected power. Lindsay Bramley makes a bustling Mistress Quickly, hilariously pompous with her ironic cries of “Reverenza”. Jemma Brown is sparklingly catty and cheeky as Mrs Meg Page. Brian Smith-Walters, though a little harsh to start, opened up into the role of Dr Cajus with gleeful thuggery and richer tone as the night went on.

The natural comedy of Shakespeare, Verdi and Boito translates smoothly into Daisy Evans’ modern-day pub setting: the story may be silly, but the scrabble after love at any price, the cod philosophy men expound knowingly to each other over beer, the swaggering and grandstanding over who is to be acknowledged alpha male – all fit nicely into a long London afternoon in some dowdy boozer, where small men are kings of their small world. The old practice of love letters, assignations and private messages also translates well into our world of texting and selfies: some things, truly, never change. Fulham Opera’s Falstaff is dynamic and intimate: above all, it brings Verdi’s final opera close to us, and closer, I think, to our hearts.

Reviewed on 14 November 2014

The final denouement. Photography by Matthew Coughlan.

The final denouement. Photography by Matthew Coughlan.

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