Belly of an architect
Royal Opera House
12/06/1999 - and 9, 11*, 14, 18, 22 December 1999
Guiseppe Verdi Falstaff
Robin Leggate (Dr Caius), Bryn Terfel (Falstaff), Peter Hoare (Bardolph),
Gwynne Howell (Pistol), Diana Montague (Meg), Barbara Frittoli (Alice),
Bernadette Manca di Nissa (Quickly), Desirée Rancatore (Nannetta),
Kenneth Tarver (Fenton), Roberto Frontali (Ford)
Bernard Haitink (conductor)
Graham Vick (director)
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
As Falstaff in Graham Vick's production, Bryn Terfel sings beautifully and
shows off his disgusting prosthetic belly, but he doesn't seem to be having
any fun. Nor do Alice, Meg and Quickly, and nor, really, did the audience
in a Royal Opera House that still smells of fresh paint. This was an
uncomfortable performance and production to set against the ENO's
entertaining and moving Alcina.
Of course, Falstaff's burla is a response to the physical and moral
dangers of civil war, which are what make his honour seem worthless, and
his presence in contemporary Windsor a reminder of wider horrors. This
Falstaff was neither, unlike Alan Opie in the delightful ENO/Opera North
production in 1997, truly childlike nor was he the full Shakespearean
figure, building a comic life from his own unhappiness.
Graham Vick's production presents the fat knight as a stain on a
squeaky-clean sitcom-cartoon picture of suburban life. It's as if Homer
Simpson was a character in a mediaeval Flinstones, or better still, the Fat
Slags were. The sets and playing-card mediaeval costumes were in cartoon
colours -- red for the Garter Inn, green for Alice's garden, yellow for her
house and midnight blue for the forest at night. Falstaff's room at the inn
had a stained bed that deflated and disappeared down one trap door at the
end of the scene as his belly, covered with a flapping shirt, disappeared
down the other. A clean, yellow-covered bed rose from the floor as the set
changed in full view from Alice's garden to her house.
The sets were clearly, and understandably, designed to show what the
house's new equipment can do, and were applauded when they did. There were
only a few creaks. But there must be those who would have made do with a
wire-and-papier-maché oak instead of the construction made of
acrobats and seen Le Grand Macabre instead.
With a production that replaced fun with a vague "ick", all that came
through was music that seemed too beautiful for low comedy and fine singing
that didn't serve any other purpose. Perhaps Bernard Haitink's apparent
weariness at the curtain call explains some of the lack of bravura. And you
can't fault a cast of Verdi specialists for singing Verdi's music as if it
were by Verdi.
But, as well as Terfel, Barbaro Frittoli as a beautiful and cheerful Alice,
Diana Montague as a jolly Meg and, particularly, Bernadette Manca di Nissa
as a forceful Quickly, had the potential for genuine benign naughtiness
without any loss of musical values. Peter Hoare and Gwynne Howells as
Bardolph and Pistol (who first emerged from the confusion on Falstaff's
bed) similarly could have been funny in another production. Roberto
Frontali sang gloriously as Ford, but seemed to have no comic sense at all
(he failed completely to act Ford's lack of a sense of humour).
Desirée Rancatore was slightly over-cute as Nannetta and Kenneth
Tarver was a bland Fenton, but both sounded gorgeous.
There's also something uncomfortable about the newly-opened house. The old
foyer remains, and there is access to some seats from there. But it is
linked by an ugly white corridor to another wood-and-white entrance hall
with access to other parts of the house and a diabolically organized
cloakroom. (The queues for the cloakroom at the end block the route of
those heading straight for two of the three exits.) The separate
amphitheatre entrance is gone, and access to the amphitheatre is by an
escalator on the far side of the Floral Hall and across the bar. This seems
a bit oblique, as does the corkscrew exit from the stalls circle, almost
impossible to find in the first place if you chose not to wait for an
elevator that is busy on the upper floors.
There is, commendably, flat access from the elevators at all levels, and
the spacious Floral Hall is wheelchair-friendly at floor-level as well as
democratic, since almost everyone passes through while getting lost looking
for their seats. The tiers around the Floral Hall, each with a different
sort of bar or restaurant, mirror those of the auditorium itself, which is
returned almost to its former shape and decor.