As Sophia in ‘The Golden Girls’ used to say when starting a story about old Sicily – Picture this. You’re an Italian composer who has written 26 operas and is approaching your 80th birthday. Is it time, you wonder, to rest on your laurels and enjoy the piece of tranquility of old age? Well, if your name had been Giuseppe Verdi, then the answer was no and you were about to write your last two operas. The first being the tragic Otello and the second being only the second comic opera in the composer’s repertoire “Falstaff” currently being performed by Fulham Opera at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston.
The story centres around the rotund – well let’s face it ‘Michelin Man’ shaped – figure of Sir John Falstaff (Keel Watson) and his schemes to lure women into his bed so that he can get his hands on their rich husband’s money. Initially aided by his two followers – Bardolph (Oliver Brignall) and Pistola (Antoine Salmon) Falstaff sets about his plans, only to be interrupted by Dr Cajus (Brian Smith-Walters) who accuses his followers of stealing his purse when Falstaff got him very drunk on a previous occasion. An argument ensues with the doctor eventually being ejected from the tavern leaving Falstaff free to pursue his plans. Having written identical letters to two different ladies – Mrs Alice Ford (Catharine Rogers) and Mrs Meg Page (Jemma Brown) he tells Bardolph and Pistola to deliver them but they refuse so Falstaff kicks them into touch and sends his young page Robin (Richard Marshall) instead.
Talk about best laid plans and all that. Unbeknown to Falstaff Both Alice and Meg are friends and happen to be meeting for coffee that day with Alice’s daughter Nanetta (Caroline Kennedy) and Mrs Quickley (Lindsay Bramley). The two ladies talk about this man that is love with them and very quickly discover the fact that both letters are identical. Enraged, the ladies plan their revenge on this man who would try and toy with their affections so badly. Now, whilst all of this is going on Bardolph and Pistolo have gone to see Alice’s husband, Mr Ford (Oliver Gibbs) and tell him of Falstaff’s scheming. Mr Ford, incensed by what he has heard, sits down with his friends Dr Cajus and Fenton (Roberto Abate) to decide how to punish this upstart. The action moves on and gets very complicated involving, dirty laundry, a dousing in the Thames, nymphs, sprites and fairies, a double wedding and a realisation of bad deeds done and the foolhardiness of man overall.
Despite seeing a lot of Shakespeare recently, I only had a very vague idea of who the character Sir John Falstaff was. I knew he popped up in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ and ‘Henry IV, parts 1 and 2’ but had no real idea of him at all. Thanks to this lovely performance I do understand him a lot more now and have to agree with R A Streatfeild who wrote ‘The leading note of Falstaff’s character is sublime self-conceit. If his belief in himself were shattered, he would be merely a vulgar sensualist and debauchee.’ Keel Watson played the character superbly, waddling down the Arcola’s stairs to enter the Garter Inn (a beautifully designed seedy cocktail bar complete with fairy lights and a plastic pineapple) and he brings a wonderful gravitas of self-belief to this otherwise ludicrous character. Ably supported by the rest of this highly talented cast – I can barely sing in the shower in English so am always impressed with someone that can sing in another language whilst acting their heart out – who really seemed to be enjoying this lovely piece of work.
Although I love opera, I am no expert and therefore can’t comment on the technical side of the singing apart from to say that to my ear, it sounded pitch perfect, had a wonderful range of emotions and kept my interest from start to finish. Sung in Italian – so the audience can really appreciate the wonderful libretto of Arrigo Boito – and with lovely surtitles, which at times really caught the vernacular of the singing below beautifully – such as Falstaff telling the Dr to leave by bringing the singing down to two words ‘p**s off’. My one gripe with the surtitles was their positioning, slight above and to the left of the stage area, meaning that for members of the audience on my side it was like watching Wimbledon with heads flicking left and right to read the words and watch the action on the stage (which was definitely worth seeing thanks to some great direction by Daisy Evans). However, that aside, the Arcola is a perfect venue for opera. Unlike in the Coliseum, I could hear every word and the singing was never overwhelmed by the music – the use of only one piano, played by Jonathan Musgrave, instead of a full orchestra worked really well.
To summarise, I had a wonderful evening with “Falstaff” and loved the entire show which came across as a talented cast performing a superb opera and really enjoying themselves while doing it, much to the delight of the highly appreciative audience.
Review by Terry Eastham
Fulham Opera presents Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi
Director Daisy Evans brings Verdi’s final masterpiece to the present day, reimagining
Shakespeare’s characters with flair and wit. A joyous and sparkling comedy from the acclaimed Fulham Opera Company.
Directed by Daisy Evans
Musical Director Benjamin Woodward, Pianist Jonathan Musgrave
Roberto Abate, Lindsay Bramley, Jemma Brown, Oliver Gibbs, Caroline Kennedy, Catharine Rogers, Antoine Salmon, Phillipa Thomas, Brian Smith Walters, Keel Watson, Oliver Brignall and Rosalind O’Dowd
Tuesday 18 – Saturday 22 August
(not Thursday 20th) at 7.30pm
Thursday 20th August 2015