Updated: Oct 3
Verdi, Boito after Shakespeare (English translation by Amanda Holden)
Grand Theatre, Leeds
September 28-October 25, 2023: 2 hrs 40 mins
(Also Theatre Royal, Newcastle, October 31 & November 2; Theatre Royal, Nottingham, November 7 & 11; The Lowry, Salford, November 15 & 18)
There’s really only one way a director can go wrong with Verdi’s late, great comic masterpiece – by trying to be too clever with the final fugal chorus that tops it all off with the words, “Life is a burst of laughter”.
Olivia Fuchs has got it right in this superb production: you just have to line them all up at the front of the stage and let them watch the conductor.
And that’s not all she does nicely – she’s updated the story to the 1980s, but it’s still essentially the same lovely fantasy. Shakespeare wrote the jokes and Verdi wrote the music: you can’t do much better than that.
The story is based The Merry Wives of Windsor, with a bit of Henry IV worked in, as we see the fat knight, in his cups (in this case lager bottles) and with his cronies Bardolph and Pistol, short of cash and big on lustful longings after the wives Meg and Alice. They realise what he’s up to and play along, but he gets taught a double lesson, first by being dumped in the Thames in a laundry basket and then by being thoroughly spooked as midnight chimes in Windsor Great Park by all their friends pretending to be fairies, sprites, hobgoblins et cetera...
Fuchs, with designer Leslie Travers, shows us the women and the rather gormless middle-aged men of the story – one a jealous husband and one a hopeless would-be suitor for his daughter – as members of a tennis club. Sir John, however, is on his uppers and lives in a battered old caravan. There’s a “green” agenda here from Opera North: the company has recycled bits of old sets for this show to try to be more sustainable, and the caravan is a real one, found in the grounds of a north Leeds pub. The director tells us this is quite symbolic, as the bourgeoisie are aspirational and don’t live sustainably, whereas Falstaff is making the most of what he’s got and having fun doing it. Maybe the last laugh is more on them than him.
The musical quality is what makes the show very special. Verdi’s writing is as lean and light as its hero is fat and heavy: it dances along and is full of colour, qualities that music director Garry Walker brings out with expertise.
Keeping all the cavorting rhythms and melodies neatly together is a challenge that is very finely accomplished, and the line-up of principals is almost an ideal cast. Henry Waddington is a great character actor and (if I may say so) built for the role, though clearly equipped with extra padding. He is supported by Paul Nilon as Dr Caius (in want of a wife), and the wonderful female quartet of Louise Winter (Mistress Quickly), Kate Royal (Alice Ford), Helen Evora (Meg Page) and Isabelle Peters (Nannetta, the young love interest). Richard Burkhard is another gifted actor as the jealous husband Ford, and Egor Zhuravskii completes the picture as young Fenton – Nannetta’s true love.
All these are quality singers, but there has to be special praise for Kate Royal and Isabelle Peters, the former a singer of great experience who’s made her name for beautiful tone quality, and the latter a relatively recent graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music who I first heard as Rapunzel in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Into the Woods and more recently starring in Errollyn Wallen’s Dido’s Ghost at Buxton International Festival.
And Fuchs does actually do more with that final fugue than just line them up: she’s got everyone popping their heads in and out of view through a vertical strip curtain, in sync with their fugal entries, which makes it great to see as well as hear.
More info and tickets here