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Vaughan Williams
Sir John in Love

English National Opera/Oleg Caetani, Coliseum, London
4 March 2006

Sir John Falstaff – Andrew Shore
Ford – Alastair Miles
Mistress Ford – Jean Rigby
Page – Russell Smyth
Mistress Page – Marie McLaughlin
Mistress Quickly – Sally Burgess
Anne Page – Sarah Fox
Fenton – Andrew Kennedy
Dr Caius – Robert Tear
Sir Hugh Evans – Iain Paterson
Host of the Garter Inn – Nicholas Folwell
Shallow – Stuart Kale
Slender – Christopher Gillett
Simple – Richard Coxon
Bardolph – Peter Kerr
Nym – Paul Napier-Burrows
Pistol – Graeme Danby
Rugby – Mark Richardson
Robin – Phillip Agnew

The long and the short of it is that Vaughan Williams just doesn't even begin to hold a candle to Verdi when it comes to adapting Shakespeare's Merrie Wives (llustrated) for the opera stage. Whilst Boito and Verdi took the Falstaff story, pared down the cast, distilled its essence both musically and dramatically and produced a work of incalculable genius, Vaughan Williams tended in the opposite direction. He includes every character in the play and imports additional poems both from other Shakespeare plays and works by Jonson, Marlowe and Middleton, topped off by a good sprinkling of folk songs. The piece becomes so potentially unwieldy that professional companies have shied away from it, and it might have been forgotten altogether if were not that Vaughan Williams is such a wonderful composer for the voice.

So, it has remained a fixture on the syllabus of the music colleges, with most opera course students studying extracts.   Fringe performances have cropped up from time to time, British Youth Opera did one in Oxford in 1996, with none other than Andrew Shore as guest artist in the title role.   Now, at last, ENO are giving it the full treatment it deserves, and a peach of a production at that.

The setting is Tudor England seen through the eyes of an Edwardian. The skeletal building that is variously configured to make up the set could as easily have come from a design by Lutyens as its 15 th century counterpart; the costumes are Edwardian, but fabric patterns and hairstyles resemble those of the earlier period, and in the wonderful bonfire-lit finale, the townspeople gather dressed as mummers and morris dancers just as Arthur Rackham would have depicted them.   Ian Judge's direction is sure footed throughout, helping the audience keep track of the of the large cast and allowing the gentle humour to find its own pace. The one jarring note is the pseudo-Ambridge accent, ranging from cockney to west country, he has imposed, not likely to have been heard in Windsor or Warwickshire.

This is just the sort of thing that shows ENO at its best, and with a dream line-up of artists which, for audience regulars, amounts to a reunion of all their favourites.   Andrew Shore is in the limelight as the fat knight, Jean Rigby (Mistress Ford) maintains a butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth exterior whilst conspiring joyously with Marie McLaughlin (Mistress Page) and Sally Burgess (Mistress Quickly).   

Alastair Miles (Ford) is like a tightly coiled spring, as frenetic when jumping cowpats as in searching for his wife's suitor. The young lovers (Sarah Fox and Andrew Kennedy) are sweet of voice. Exceptional clarity of diction comes from Russell Smythe (Page) eschewing that accent, and there are lovely characterisations from Roberts Tear as the French Dr Caius (his voice as distinctive as ever), Iain Paterson as the Welsh Parson, and Nicholas Folwell as the Landlord of the Inn but truly it's an ensemble piece, the voices blend and complement one another with the orchestra relishing the sweeping English folksong melodies.

A treat not to be missed I shall return on 1 April (it seems a perfect choice for April Fools' Day) when Alex Ingram will conduct.

© Serena Fenwick

 

Jean Rigby (Mistress Ford), Sally Burgess (Mistress Quickly), Marie McLaughlin (Mistress Page)
(photo: Clive Barda / English National Opera)

 

 

Peter Grahame Woolf