Christopher Luscombe’s debut as opera-director unveils Verdi’s comic masterpiece as an up-to-the-minute, fast-paced romp. It’s a glossy, uproarious spectacle that maximises our perceptions of Shakespeare’s loveable yet lecherous rogue (whose attempts to seduce two of Windsor’s Merry Wives end in disaster) and minimises reflections on honour and regret. Verdi spoke of Shakespeare’s aging Jack-the-lad as “a sad man who commits every sort of wicked deed … in a delightful way” and Luscombe’s Falstaff is wholeheartedly wicked, though with little if any trace of melancholy.
If Simon Higlett’s designs tend to crowd the stage, there’s eye-catching detail: a gleaming bar locates the Garter Inn with mock Regency décor hinting at former glory and yields to a nouveau riche riverside house (complete with model steamboat on which arrives Ford and his son-in-law-to-be Fenton), later revealing a shiny new kitchen with walk-in-larder that comes in handy for Nannetta and Fenton’s canoodling and crucial to the deception of Alice’s jealous husband. Hernes Oak in Act Three is well-judged too – just believable enough to convince as a haunted woodland glade in Windsor Great Park –across which, in true panto style, a cardboard Corgi is accompanied by her Royal Majesty.
Robert Hayward as Falstaff commands the stage with bags of personality and inhabits the role as if born to it – whether in an explosion of mismatched colours, jogging attire or natty stripped blazer. Best of all is his mud-splattered emergence from the Thames with shopping trolley and traffic cone – comedy gold. And to match the swagger Hayward has got plenty of vocal heft – decibels that could have been heard across all of Hampshire and will in due course, hopefully, be tamed. (The Grange is an intimate space for which singers sometimes need to be reminded.) That said, it’s a persuasive portrait with a voice that stirs the emotions. He’s got excellent support from Nicholas Lester as an uptight Ford gloriously kitted out, every inch a wide-boy. Christopher Gillett and Pietro di Bianco as Falstaff’s henchmen are both distinctive, though Graham Clark’s piercing tone makes too much of Dr Caius’s ranting. Alessandro Fisher is a gratifying Fenton – whose ardent tenor rings out tellingly in the final scene.
Of the women, Susan Bickley is a superb Mistress Quickly, singing with a range of timbres without over-egging things, and priceless in her comic timing. Rhian Lois is a knowing Nannetta and gives a memorable Queen of the Fairies aria, while Elin Pritchard and Angela Simkin together make a spirited Alice Ford and Meg Page.
Francesco Cilluffo and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra respond to the score with energy and near-flawless solo contributions to complete a rollicking evening.