The two running themes of the arts in London this summer are Shakespeare and the spirit of England. Opera Holland Park can congratulate itself on having hit both at the same time in this production of Verdi’s great Shakespearian comedy, which is updated to present a very specific vision of the English way of life.
This is the last of Opera Holland Park’s main stage productions this year. Like the best of the company’s work, it is based on good ensemble work (a must for Falstaff of all operas) and an energy under conductor Peter Robinson that keeps it bowling along, good ideas and less-than-good ones flashing past at speed.
The period in Annilese Miskimmon’s production is some years after the first world war. Falstaff is housed in a home for injured army veterans (it would be good to know what this boastful old retainer has done to win such an array of medals) and the comedy has a cruel, rather manic feel to it, as the cast dash about, rarely leaving the stage still for a minute.
It is appropriate that Olafur Sigurdarson’s Falstaff should be unusually young and vigorous. He sings with a lot more voice than most in the role, turns cartwheels, leaps around the furniture and generally exudes charisma – but it is difficult to love him. Our first meeting with this Falstaff, when he forcibly tips a wounded soldier out of his wheelchair, does not help.
Elsewhere, comic images of a lost England abound. The merry wives, led by Linda Richardson’s Alice and Carolyn Dobbin’s sterling Meg Page, are Women’s Institute regulars at a cake-baking afternoon, who go into battle armed with egg-whisks. Ford, sung without much Italianate ring by George von Bergen, is a man of the church hosting a vicars’ convention and Mistress Quickly, the always entertaining Carole Wilson, is the dogsbody family cleaner. Rhona McKail’s Nanetta and, especially, Benjamin Hulett’s Fenton, played as a gormless boy scout, sing with lyric beauty. With so much to laugh at in Miskimmon’s hyperactive production, one would have thought the audience would be falling about. Instead, there was a stony silence – a strange reaction to a Falstaff that has its own brand of comedy.