Falstaff @ The Arcola Theatre (Grimeborn Festival 2015) Review

As part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre, Fulham Opera presents Verdi’s final opera in a modern version with Keel Watson as Sir John Falstaff. The independent opera company usually produces large scale works in the intimate space of St. John’s Church in Fulham.

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Image by Robert Workman

Falstaff became Verdi’s greatest success but it was a long journey fraught with difficulties. When Arrigo Boito wrote the libretto for Falstaff he was faced with the difficult task of fusing Shakespeare’s farce The Merry Wives of Windsor and the history plays Henry IV Part 1 and 2. Although at first glance Falstaff seems to be a mere retelling of Shakespeare’s farce, Boito drew heavily on the two histories to give substance to Falstaff’s character who would otherwise come across as a shallow fool. By reducing the cast from 18 to 10, Boito kept the focus on the infamous knight with the other characters merely orbiting around him.

At the Garter Inn Falstaff has an altercation with Dr Caius. He is accused of burgling the good doctor’s house. Falstaff quickly dismisses Caius as he has more important fish to fry. He sends his page with love-letters to Mrs Page and Mrs Ford, who, disgusted by the fat womanizer’s advances using identical prose for both declarations of love, plan their revenge together, while Falstaff’s follower Pistol tells Ford what is happening. The plot against Falstaff is carried forward through Mistress Quickly, who makes an appointment for him with Mrs Ford. Ford himself appears at the inn, in disguise, offering a bribe, if Falstaff will pave the way for him by seducing Mrs Ford. Meanwhile Ford’s daughter Nannetta has fallen in love with the dashing Fenton and is less than intrigued by her father’s idea to marry Dr Caius.

Keel Watson’s Falstaff is a retired sportsman who possesses an ironic dignity as he philosophises about life. Whilst he is sitting in the Garter Inn, a pub decorated with colourful party lights and exuding a tacky South Sea atmosphere, Dr Caius enters in a rage. In Daisy Evans’ updated version, Caius is a crude lout in a pink tank top with a heavy gold chain around his neck – an impressive comic performance by Brian Smith-Walters. Falstaff is unimpressed by his tantrum, assuring Caius that he is an innocent man. After Caius has left, Falstaff gives his helpers Pistol (Antoine Salmon) and Bardolph (Oliver Brignall) a fair beating for their incompetent thieving and reminds them: “Always steal with grace and rhythm.”

The female characters are pragmatic and clear thinking, confident in themselves as they strut across the stage. They know that flaunting their female assets will go far with many men. Alice Ford (Catharine Rogers) is in firm control of her husband, played by Oliver Gibbs with seething jealousy, as is Meg Page (Jemma Brown) who carries herself like royalty. They devise their revenge on Falstaff with the help of the sly Mrs Quickly (Lindsay Bramley). Nannetta (Caroline Kennedy) and Fenton (Roberto Abate) convince as the romantic young lovers, inspired by Boccacio’s Decameron. Dumb shows and slapstick are interspersed throughout the fast-paced production that provides perfect comic timing, one excellent example being the first encounter between Falstaff and Mr Ford, disguised as Mr Fontana. Keel Watson brings the necessary gravitas to his character when he remembers his youth and expresses his thoughts on the absurdity of “honour”.
The orchestra consists of Pianist Jonathan Musgrave. Therefore, Ben Woodward, the Musical Director, conducts the singers in this beautifully sung, witty and creative production which is quite unlike any other of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas.

Review written by Carolin Kopplin.

Falstaff is currently showing at the Arcola Theatre as part of this year’s Grimeborn Festival until Saturday 22nd August. For more information on the production, visit here…

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