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Verdi Falstaff
Guildhall School of Music & Drama

March 22, 2006

Sir John Falstaff – David Stout
Dr Caius – Gediminas Varna
Bardolfo – Gareth Huw John
Pistola – Tom Oldham
Mrs Alice Ford – Lenia Safiropoulou
Nannetta – Joana Seara
Mrs Meg Page – Helen Evora
Mrs Quickly – Geneviève King
Fenton – Luciano Botelho
Ford – Loïc Guguen
Barman – Ritz de Ridder

Chorus and Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama/Paolo Olmi

Olivia Fuchs – Director
Bob Bailey – Designer
Bruno Poet – Lighting Designer

Olivia Fuchs is the star of this production, one to add to our store of long term treasured memories alongside her Macbeth and Fidelio for OHP.

But that would count for little without the student orchestra, which in this last performance, never sounded like one under the steady guiding baton of Paolo Olmi. Thorough preparation ensured that it was the miracle of Verdi's perfect creation we left humming in our ears, with wonder at how he integrates the complex ever changing sequence of interactions between the characters who have become familiar friends of opera goers, always welcome to meet with again.

More traditional settings can still work, but need a little irony added, as in Shakespeare's Falstaff's current recreation at ENO. Fuchs and Bailey install Boito's Falstaff and his court at the bar of an indeterminate venue ('a swanky 1920s country-club' - The Times - or 'a 1950s' Butlin's holiday camp' - Classical Source) with a swimming pool off stage and a laundry basket conveniently to hand.

We meet our hero finishing typing love letters for his hangers on to deliver to two Merry Wives of Windsor he fancies. David Stout may be the youngest Falstaff we've seen, but his studied movements and mellifluous baritone make his one of the most rounded assumptions of this iconic role, ideally judged for a small opera house. He has a new take on dragging himself back onto dry land and soothing alcohol after his unplanned swim, very miserable until he has has called for a drink. We'll be seeing a lot of him; Gianni Schichi at GSMD soon.

The set lends itself perfectly to the ensembles, with eavesdropping between groups convincingly staged. A few of the incidents encompassed creak just a little, but our hearts are quickly won over, so we relax and join in to the tune of the show's motto emblazoned on high, 'Live life to the full'.

The entrance to the bar is transformed to Herne's Oak and Bruno Poet's lighting sets the scene for the magic of Joana Seara's fairy queen song; each of her brief, snatched moments with Luciano Botelho is beautifully managed and they make a delightful pair of youthful lovers. No serious weaknesses in the cast; Lenia Safiropoulou manages the plots well, Geneviève King has an extraordinary vocal range and makes Mrs Quickly her own and Gediminas Varna is a very full-voiced Caius.

Sex is on everyone's mind, of course - money too - and the wealthy Ford, a wartime blackmarketeer perhaps, who's so rich he can buy anything except peace of mind (today he might have sought a Peerage?) takes his suspected cuckolding hard. The resilient horned-Falstaff quickly recovers from serial humiliations and after the double-marriage scene leads the ten-voice fugue which proclaims that the whole world is a joke (Tutto nel mondo è burla).

Older supporters of opera at the London colleges will remember a time when you could only expect to see ensemble work of this quality at Glyndebourne. Diction was generally good and the surtitles presented exactly to time; the pleasure of opera at GSMD has been vastly enhanced by their introduction, somewhat belatedly.

Now, it is the London colleges that often lead the way to the national opera companies.

* [Olivia Fuchs confirms that 'it is set in the 1950s (1953 to be exact, when rationing in England finally ended) and was inspired by Bexhill's De La Warr Pavillion, which had been designed in the '30s.  Many holiday camps and residencies were taken over as prisoner-of-war or military camps during WW2 and then reinstated for the growing leisure industry in the '50s'.]

Performance Channel has filmed the development of this production for broadcsast in the summer on Sky and Telewest.

Pictured: David Stout & Lenia Safiropoulou

© Peter Grahame Woolf