The triumph of fun
11/22/2005 - and 25 November 2005
Guiseppe Verdi: Falstaff
Andrew Slater (Sir John Falstaff), Ronald Samm (Bardolf), Alan Fairs (Pistol), Christopher Ovenden (Dr Caius), Craig Smith (Ford), Julie Unwin (Alice), Wendy Dawn Thompson (Meg), Harriet Williams (Mistress Quickly), Rebecca Bottone (Nannetta), Thomas Walker (Fenton)
Gary Cooper (conductor), James Conway (director)
11/23/2005 and 24, 26 November 2005
George Frideric Handel: Alcina
Amanda Echalaz (Alcina), Tamsin Coombs (Morgana), Louise Poole (Ruggiero), Marie Elliott Davies (Bradamante), Ashley Catling (Oronte), Charles Johnston (Melisso)
Tim Murray (conductor), Gavin Quinn (director)
English Touring Opera orchestra
English Touring Opera has long brought standard repertory opera to the places most other opera companies do not reach, but it has definitely perked up in the year since James Conway, previously of Opera Theatre Ireland, took over as General Director. After a charming and well-sung pairing of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Marriage of Figaro, they are now touring with a slightly less well matched pair of operas that still have plenty of entertainment and interest, plus The (Little) Magic Flute, which hasn't made it to Cambridge.
The entertainment, not surprisingly, came from a nifty, economical production of Verdi's Falstaff, directed by Damiano Michieletto, in Andrew Porter's translation and Jonathan Dove's orchestral reduction. The string-light orchestra had an edge that would have been at home in vaudeville (or Sondheim), the costumes were Threepeny Opera meets panto, there was funny dancing in the right places and almost no set – the hanging washing did for the screen. The performances were all-round perky, but the music got its worth, above all in the moments for formal closure. Pistol and Bardolf's Amen made as much sense as it would at Covent Garden.
Andrew Slater was a slightly sleazy, characterful Falstaff, not much of a threat but not quite cuddly; his gut was rather upstaged by the natural one of Ronald Samm, his Bardolf, whose substantial lyric tenor matched the brio of his acting; Alan Fairs' Pistol was elfin by comparison but still comic enough. Christopher Ovenden was an insubstantial Dr Caius. The burgers of Windsor were a fine sit-com team, with Craig Smith's slightly monotone Ford (in panto pinstripes) amusingly harassed by the women. Julie Unwin (in slacks and gold coat) as Alice was utterly in control of the fun, and made a fine double act with Wendy Dawn Thompson's fruity, younger Alice (in clashing tartans and snood). Harriet Williams as Quickly, probably even younger, was more rumbustious schoolgirl than old witch but she had a good chunky Reverenza that showed much promise. Thomas Walker as Fenton and Rebecca Bottone as Nannetta were a wholesomely randy pair whose music was robust rather than exquisite.
Alcina, in Andrew Jones' translation, had a bigger orchestra, a less even cast and a more problematic production by James Conway. As in his Ariodante last year, Conway gave Alcina an English Protestant background that definitely does not belong in the text but might have been in play in the perceptions of its original audience. In Ariodante he replaced the libretto's Catholic prurience and Counter-Reformation disillusion with Presbyterian severity; in Alcina, the Puritans Bradamante and Melisso put on the armour of righteousness to rescue Ruggiero from sin, of which he had more even than Alcina. The decor was vaguely Roundheads and Cavaliers, with Alcina and Morgana wrong but romantic. Oberto and the redemption of nature in his love for his father wasn't there, there were no beasties, and the enchanted isle was left to the imagination. There were some cuts, generally for length, none clunking and a few improving, for example, a substantial compression of Ruggiero's disenchantment (which Melisso did as himself), which doesn't usually make much sense anyway because it depends so much on a back story the audience is unlikely to know or care about. But there was little sense of the depth and detail of Ruggiero's psychic journey, in which he acknowledges the pleasures of enchantment as well as their snares, and the transfer of Mi lusigna (with respun words) to Bradamante removed the complexity of his withdrawal from illusion. The flying horse wasn't mentioned, which made sense when there way no way of showing it. But, again, the contraction of the action made Sta nell' Ircano an anthem in praise of love and marriage rather than an over-the-top fight song by a warrior high on his escape, and the trio Non e amor, Alcina's (true) prophecy of Ruggiero's death, became just a bad scene with the ex. There is a strong sense of conventional morality in the libretto, more so than in Ariosto, where the only imperative for Ruggiero and Bradamante to marry is that they have to found the house of Este, but there is also enormous sensuality that we are meant to enjoy for its own sake: Ruggiero's indulgence is part of his development, even if he has to grow up and settle down.
Amanda Echalaz as Alcina was handsome, though she looked a touch like Margaret Thatcher from some angles, and irresistibly passionate, in a way that bore no resemblance to any Prime Minister in living memory. Tamsin Coombs was an elegant Morgana with a promising, but still appropriately soubrettish voice, though sadly she lost her first aria. Louise Poole as Ruggiero and Marie Elliott Davies were both slightly woofy mezzos of the kind who seem good in theory in travesty roles but turn out not to have the heft required. Poole was much happier in the fireworks of Sta nell' Ircano than in her lower register, while Elliott Davies' solid but lightweight sounding voice matched her austere appearance. (Ruggiero was decidedly curvier than Bradamante, which didn't help the erotic illusion.) Charles Johnston was a beefy Melisso and Ashley Catling a rather thuggish Oronte who got plenty of mileage out of his generally thankless arias.