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Belly of an architect

Royal Opera House
12/06/1999 -  and 9, 11*, 14, 18, 22 December 1999
Guiseppe Verdi Falstaff
Robin Leggate (Dr Caius), Bryn Terfel (Falstaff), Peter Hoare (Bardolph), Gwynne Howell (Pistol), Diana Montague (Meg), Barbara Frittoli (Alice), Bernadette Manca di Nissa (Quickly), Desirée Rancatore (Nannetta), Kenneth Tarver (Fenton), Roberto Frontali (Ford)
Bernard Haitink (conductor)
Graham Vick (director)
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

As Falstaff in Graham Vick's production, Bryn Terfel sings beautifully and shows off his disgusting prosthetic belly, but he doesn't seem to be having any fun. Nor do Alice, Meg and Quickly, and nor, really, did the audience in a Royal Opera House that still smells of fresh paint. This was an uncomfortable performance and production to set against the ENO's entertaining and moving Alcina.

Of course, Falstaff's burla is a response to the physical and moral dangers of civil war, which are what make his honour seem worthless, and his presence in contemporary Windsor a reminder of wider horrors. This Falstaff was neither, unlike Alan Opie in the delightful ENO/Opera North production in 1997, truly childlike nor was he the full Shakespearean figure, building a comic life from his own unhappiness.

Graham Vick's production presents the fat knight as a stain on a squeaky-clean sitcom-cartoon picture of suburban life. It's as if Homer Simpson was a character in a mediaeval Flinstones, or better still, the Fat Slags were. The sets and playing-card mediaeval costumes were in cartoon colours -- red for the Garter Inn, green for Alice's garden, yellow for her house and midnight blue for the forest at night. Falstaff's room at the inn had a stained bed that deflated and disappeared down one trap door at the end of the scene as his belly, covered with a flapping shirt, disappeared down the other. A clean, yellow-covered bed rose from the floor as the set changed in full view from Alice's garden to her house.

The sets were clearly, and understandably, designed to show what the house's new equipment can do, and were applauded when they did. There were only a few creaks. But there must be those who would have made do with a wire-and-papier-maché oak instead of the construction made of acrobats and seen Le Grand Macabre instead.

With a production that replaced fun with a vague "ick", all that came through was music that seemed too beautiful for low comedy and fine singing that didn't serve any other purpose. Perhaps Bernard Haitink's apparent weariness at the curtain call explains some of the lack of bravura. And you can't fault a cast of Verdi specialists for singing Verdi's music as if it were by Verdi.

But, as well as Terfel, Barbaro Frittoli as a beautiful and cheerful Alice, Diana Montague as a jolly Meg and, particularly, Bernadette Manca di Nissa as a forceful Quickly, had the potential for genuine benign naughtiness without any loss of musical values. Peter Hoare and Gwynne Howells as Bardolph and Pistol (who first emerged from the confusion on Falstaff's bed) similarly could have been funny in another production. Roberto Frontali sang gloriously as Ford, but seemed to have no comic sense at all (he failed completely to act Ford's lack of a sense of humour). Desirée Rancatore was slightly over-cute as Nannetta and Kenneth Tarver was a bland Fenton, but both sounded gorgeous.

There's also something uncomfortable about the newly-opened house. The old foyer remains, and there is access to some seats from there. But it is linked by an ugly white corridor to another wood-and-white entrance hall with access to other parts of the house and a diabolically organized cloakroom. (The queues for the cloakroom at the end block the route of those heading straight for two of the three exits.) The separate amphitheatre entrance is gone, and access to the amphitheatre is by an escalator on the far side of the Floral Hall and across the bar. This seems a bit oblique, as does the corkscrew exit from the stalls circle, almost impossible to find in the first place if you chose not to wait for an elevator that is busy on the upper floors.

There is, commendably, flat access from the elevators at all levels, and the spacious Floral Hall is wheelchair-friendly at floor-level as well as democratic, since almost everyone passes through while getting lost looking for their seats. The tiers around the Floral Hall, each with a different sort of bar or restaurant, mirror those of the auditorium itself, which is returned almost to its former shape and decor.

H.E. Elsom



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