SCOTTISH Opera has been a veritable powerhouse of artistic creativity throughout the pandemic. On screen and outdoor stage, no company has done more to keep the artistic flame burning during the last, spirit-sapping 16 months.
Impressive though this programme has been, however, none of it could quite prepare us for the company’s latest production, a new staging of Verdi’s final opera Falstaff.
Directed and designed by Sir David McVicar, it is presented in a huge, gazebo-style outdoor auditorium in the car park of Scottish Opera’s Glasgow production studios.
The show is played on a large, purpose-built wooden stage upon which sits a lovely and brilliantly functional wooden structure in which multiple staircases lead to and from a gantry and a balcony. A co-production with Santa Fe Opera in the United States, it needs the space that this bespoke stage provides.
The ongoing pandemic may have necessitated an outdoor production (although it does transfer to the – no doubt carefully physically distanced – Festival Theatre in Edinburgh next month), but this has not shrunk the director’s ambition.
McVicar has relocated the opera, in which the reprobate knight Sir John Falstaff attempts to defraud two married ladies of Windsor by way of seduction, from the early-15th century (when Falstaff appears in Shakespeare’s plays) to 1620. He has done so, he has explained, in order to cast Falstaff as a man out of his time.
This Sir Jack is an Elizabethan who has outlived his creator, the Bard of Stratford, by four years. A considerable 17 years into the rule of James I and VI, he is still unable to adjust to the social mores of Jacobean England.
All of which requires, and is given, the full operatic treatment. The public health emergency might require that the amplified orchestra plays from inside the studio building, but what we see on stage is genuinely spectacular.
Arrigo Boito’s libretto (which is sung here in English) draws upon all three of the Shakespeare plays in which Falstaff appears: namely Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and, more substantially, The Merry Wives Of Windsor. From the dingy denizens of the
Garter Inn (the down-at-heel hostelry that Falstaff calls home) to a yellow-attired housemaid, who is clearly inspired by Vermeer, McVicar’s visualisation of the tale is gloriously vivid.
The superb cast, led, in the title role, by the fabulous baritone Roland Wood, gives us a high-octane rendering of the opera, with all the colour and rumbustious humour Verdi intended. New Zealand baritone
Phillip Rhodes, as the outraged husband Ford and his disguised alter-ego Mr Brook, captures, in song and gesture, the power and energetic humour of his character’s misguided suspicion.
THE wonderful soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn sings the wronged, but revenged, Alice Ford with great emotional depth and supple versatility. Wood himself is absolutely masterful in both the resonating power and the glorious absurdity with which he imbues his character. This Falstaff, even in the midst of his humiliation, seems to be recalling the virility of his youth.
McVicar may be working, Shakespeare’s Globe-style, on an empty stage, but he fills it, moment-by-moment, with fabulous colour and imaginative panache.
The final scene, in which we witness a midnight masquerade in Windsor Park, offers a delightful carousel of costumed characters, including a deliciously playful rendering of a bird-headed figure from Hieronymus Bosch’s great triptych The Temptation Of St Anthony.
This is opera as the perfect antidote to the pandemic. It will, surely, be the toast of the Edinburgh International Festival next month.