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by on 9 June 2019

Big, Boisterous, Brilliant ! 


by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito

The Grange Festival, The Grange, Northington until 29th June

A review by Mark Aspen

Cheers! Falstaff would approve: we start in the pub for The Grange Festival’s priceless production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Blustering, big, boisterous and brilliant, it is Falstaffian to a tee.

The pub is one of those country town inns now spruced up as part of a hotel chain. Simon Higlett’s finely observed set is varnished wood, regency stripes, Amtico floors and modern brass, with newly installed lifts and uniformed staff not quite yet up to speed; the sort of place where middling companies hold corporate events. This is The Garter at Windsor, where the erstwhile peripatetic Falstaff is now ensconced, and where he has become one of the famous sights of the town for excited tourists staying in the hotel to grab a sneaky selfie on their mobiles.

And we are straight into the action with a noisy altercation between Falstaff and his cronies, and Dr Caius, a well-heeled semi-retired GP, who has been robbed, and he knows by whom!

They never quite get to blows, but the hapless Caius is ejected. All this causes riveting entertainment for the hotel guests and bar staff. Falstaff has a scheme to bolster his evaporating finances: to seduce two wealthy (and married) Windsor ladies, and has identical love letters prepared. His accomplices, the hitherto disreputable Bardolfo and Pistola refuse, on their honour, to be involve. Falstaff is outraged and kicks them out in a thunderous tirade, “L’onore! Ladri … !” (Honour! You thieves … !).


Thus we are introduced to Falstaff, larger than larger-than-life. As Falstaff, Robert Hayward is outstanding in all senses, including the big-belly that is a source of pride for Falstaff who, for all his egotism, has no self-awareness. A hairy, bearded and bare-footed bohemian, clad in loudly mismatched free-flowing patchwork, Falstaff may call himself vecchio John, but he has certainly not any intention of growing old gracefully. There is no false modesty in Falstaff; when he tells us he is immenso, enorme, he is referring as much to his ego as his bulk. Haywood’s ruby-rich clear bass-baritone floods the opera-house with easeful energy and power as he makes Falstaff the epitome of the loveable rogue. Yes, he is an old roué, but a big-hearted one taking a punt; if he is lecher, he is a likeable one.

Verdi was almost eighty years old when he wrote Falstaff. It had started out as a little exercise “to pass the time”, since in in all his decades of composing, he had never tackled a full-length comic opera. Although he didn’t speak English, he loved Shakespeare and is said to have always kept Italian translations by his bedside. When Verdi happened to mention his ambition to Arrigo Boito, the librettist of his Otello, Boito said nothing, but he secretively started writing a libretto, abridging The Merry Wives of Windsor, and using some material from Henry IV. When Bolto casually dropped a copy of his libretto in on him, “Verdi could not hide his delight”.

The Grange Festival’s bang-up-to-date version would most certainly have delighted Giuseppe Verdi (and William Shakespeare too would have a good belly-laugh at how far his The Merry Wives of Windsor had come). This is a production that every member of the company has had huge fun creating, and everyone has put their all into the show.

Simon Higlett’s pub set is trucked and slides aside to reveal the Ford villa, a high spec new-build des-res right on the Thames with its own private mooring, complete with a rather swish mahogany steam-launch, fully working! The villa is on a revolve and turns to reveal the interior of the villa, with its all mod cons kitchen-breakfast room, an Ideal Home Exhibition star exhibit. There are visual gags galore. Is that a portrait of The Grange Festival Chairman hanging in the Garter pub? For the final scene we are at Herne’s Oak in the moonlight, a totally magical creation. Then, a propos of nothing, a little hunched-up lady walks past, wearing green welly-boots, a Barbour coat and patterned headscarf: on her dog lead, she has her corgi. We know we are definably in the Royal Windsor Park. The audience loved it. If the design is a tour de force, which it undoubtedly is, then Karen Large’s costumes are a further witty element, each one commenting on each character’s idiosyncrasies and foibles.


Master Ford, the husband of Alice, one of Falstaff’s would-be paramours, swaps his everyday middle-class dowdiness to disguise himself as his alter-ego Fontana, pink-suited and sockless, straight from the Milan catwalk. Nicholas Lester, in this role, equally takes his character from studious propriety to supressed jealousy as his tries to thwart Falstaff’s designs on his wife. Lester’s great comic timing as an actor complements his fine baritone singing.

The mistress of the house, Alice Ford is more than a match for Falstaff’s lechery. Elin Pritchard portrays her as vivacious, intelligent and cunning, plus Pritchard’s singing is superb, a bright mellifluous soprano. Meg Page, Falstaff’s other yummy mummy target is in the hands of Angela Simkin attractively energetic and personable, her fine mezzo pairing nicely to make the “Merry Wives”. This conspiratorial band of ladies is completed by Susan Bickley as Mistress Quickly, the Ford’s housekeeper, and Rhian Lois as Nanetta their youthful daughter, together making an integrated intimate quartet working seamlessly in ensemble. They form a figurative chastity belt to protect the virtue of these very 21st Century merry wives.


Susan Bickley’s contralto emphases those falling notes, the ribbing nature of Mistress Quickly that make Falstaff so gullible to her bait. We know that, when she describes Alice as povera donna, she is taking the mickey, but Falstaff falls for it a second time round.

An effervescent soprano, Rhian Lois plays Nanetta as an attractive, slightly coquettish and rather savvy teenager. Her beau, the love-stricken Fenton, takes plenty of opportunities to pootle along in the steam launch to woo Nanetta. Alessandro Fisher’s Fenton makes a gentle and charming suitor. Just as Fenton has captured Nanetta’s heart, so Fisher captivates the audience with his beautiful tenor rendering of Fenton’s love song, dal labbro il canto estasiato vola (from my lips, a song of ecstasy flies), then as he is melodically reassuring her, bocca baciata non perde ventura (lips that are kissed do not lose their fascination), his song is interrupted.  Alas!


Together they make an engaging couple, and indeed would be engaged were it not that her father has promised her to the aging Dr Caius. Dapper in his boating blazer, Graham Clark cuts a purposeful figure. The international acclaimed tenor is in fine voice, putting a playful punch into this role. But of course the hapless Caius is also to be thwarted in his intentions, as he is sucked into the wake of Falstaff’s come-uppance.

Poor old Falstaff allows himself to be gulled, not once but twice. The first is at the hands of the women, a perfumed ambush into which he walks, well spruced-up in a smart red and white Henley regatta jacket and shiny co-respondent shoes, with a dozen red roses to present to Alice Ford. His awaited dalliance is rudely interrupted by the entrance of Master Ford and he is bundled into a laundry basket, prepared by the washing-machine repair men (dungaree clad members of The Grange Festival Chorus). They merely shrug as they carry out the lady of the house’s instructions to dump the contents in the Thames.


The Grange Festival’s Falstaff is the first operatic undertaking for Christopher Luscombe, the eminent Shakespearean director, and it is a mark of his skill that this wonderful rollicking production does not get stuck on one level. There are moments of lyricism and also moments of sheer pathos. One such is when a dank and depressed Falstaff emerges from his dunking in the river. Hayward’s brilliance is seen once again in his expression of misery and the real anguish he feels, which is also expressed in Verdi score. However, Falstaff is irrepressible and, after a quick mulled wine at The Garter, that pathos quickly switches to bathos as Mistress Quickly appears, assuring his reverenza that her povera donna awaits him still.

The second ambush Falstaff willing walks into is to a midnight assignation in Windsor Great Park. He is expecting a mystical sexual fantasy, a ménage à trois with both Alice Ford and Meg Page as he goes with priapic expectation towards Herne’s Oak. But this time almost everyone has ganged up in the trickery, including his own henchmen, Bardolfo and Pistola. Tenor, Christopher Gillett’s Bardolfo, a scruffy and sozzled soak, his bulbous purple trademark nose much in evidence, is contrasted nicely with bass Pietro di Bianco’s slick and scathing Pistola, like a blinged-up black-suited bookie’s runner.

The ethereal clearing at Herne’s Oak is a beautifully created space, with Peter Mumford’s lighting design leaving the canopies of the trees almost floating on mystical under-lighting.   Equally atmospheric is interpretation of Verdi’s score by Francesco Cilluffo, conducting The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. As we approach the forest, a plaintiff horn sets the scene. Horns of the deer? Horns of the cuckold? A neat musical pun either way. But the BSO plays exemplarily throughout.

In the forest, Falstaff (and Caius) have their shaming, then all is resolved, lovers united, marriages conducted and finally the fugue tutto nel mondo è burla reminds us that all the world’s a …not a stage, but a jape!

With its feel-good factor, world class singing, and fantastic music, brilliantly acted on an ingenious set, The Grange Festival’s Falstaff is a winner. If you only go to one country-house opera this summer, this must be it!

Mark Aspen
June 2019

Photography by Clive Barda

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