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Lovely Jean

03/02/2006 -  and 4, 11, 14, 17, 23, 25 March, 1 April 2006
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Sir John in Love
Andrew Shore (Sir John Falstaff), Philip Agnew (Robin), Alastair Miles (Ford), Jean Rigby (Mistress Ford), Russell Smythe (Page), Marie McLaughlin (Mistress Page), Sarah Fox (Anne Page), Joel Marzela (William Page), Iain Paterson (Sir Hugh Evans), Nicholas Folwell (Host of the Garter Inn), Robert Tear (Dr Caius), Sally Burgess (Mistress Quickly), Mark Richardson (Rugby), Andrew Kennedy (Fenton), Stuart Kale (Shallow), Christopher Gillett (Slender), Richard Coxon (Peter Simple), Peter Kerr (Bardolph), Paul Napier-Burrows (Nym), Graeme Danby (Pistol)

Oleg Caetani (conductor), Ian Judge (directory)

Chorus and Orchestra of the ENO

You can't get much more English than Ralph Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love. It is based, far more closely than Verdi's Falstaff, on The Merry Wives of Windsor, with its low humour and suburban shenanigans, and its music consists largely of real and invented English folk melodies. Written in the late 1920s, it is both nostalgic for an imaginary England lost in the war -- Vaughan Williams does not follow Bonito in alluding to the danger that Falstaff represents in Henry IV to young men caught up in his Para-military exploits -- and part of an English theatre world where the Shakespeare Company was in residence at Stratford and Nigel Play air regularly put the Beggar's Opera on at the Lyric Hammersmith, where English act-ors were on their way to Hollywood and Englishness meant high but amiable art.

Yet Sir John has had only four productions since its delayed premiere in 1931, two of them professional and the last in 1958. Part of the reason is obviously the pre-eminence of Verdi's Falstaff in the repertoire, and perhaps the ascendancy of Britten and an attendant preference for atonality over pentatonicism, and modernism over romanticism, since the second world war. Ian Judge's elegant, not-too-cosy production nods jokily at the conventional criticism of Vaughan Williams' music by staging the duel between Caius and Evans in a field full of imaginary cow pats. But Oleg Caetani's tight direction of the score brought out something decidedly sparer and tougher, a few steps on the way to the clarity of Dona nobis pacem. The score is also definitely symphonic, more like Verdi's that you might expect: Mistress Ford sings the familiar delightful setting of Greensleeves as she waits for Falstaff, Quickly throws off the first verse of Lovely Joan, the other main melody in the Fantasia on Greensleeves, as she trots through Windsor, and the counter-melody that links the two tunes pokes its head out throughout the opera, although the three never come together formally.

There are plenty of other musical pleasures, from a splendidly rude invented folksong -- perhaps a snook at Cecil Sharpe, who refused to publish smutty words, including those of Lovely Joan -- to an exquisite, moving brief scene of reconciliation between Ford and Mistress Ford. But a single hearing wasn't enough to say conclusively that it belongs in the repertoire. The play, after all, is an early example of a spinoff of a popular character, and has more than its share of jokes for the groundlings, and the opera presents it almost in its entirety, with all three of Ann Ford's suitors and both funny foreigners, as well as the full package of Fords and Pages, and everybody's servants. It is confusing as well as expensive to stage.

Still, Judge, Caetani and the singers and chorus provided a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and made a case for the work. The vaguely Edwardian setting, with skeletal Tudorbethan houses, was elegant and set a suitably distanced period tone, and the characters were part RSC-grade Shakespeare and part English sitcom trad. Jean Rigby as Mistress Ford and Marie McLaughlin as Mistress Page were a luscious pair of naughty but nice middle-aged English ladies, and Sally Burgess was very funny, and a ringer for Prunella Scales, as Quickly. Rigby is still in glorious voice, and quite happy away from her usual contraltoid tessitura. Sarah Fox was suitably charming and perky as Ann.

Andrew Shore is a natural in the title role, and would probably be pretty good in a straight staging of Shakespeare. The poster for the production suggests that Falstaff is a Leslie Philips type, but Shore avoids any simple mannerisms, presenting the fat knight as someone who is always having a jolly good time, with the occasional set back which takes him only a few seconds to move on from. Alastair Miles as Ford is a less rounded character, but still pretty funny. He gives the role some of the intensity of Verdi's Ford. Andrew Kennedy is a mellifluous Fenton, a touch solid in appearance but romantic enough. The rest of the ensemble are well, luxuriously chosen. A vocal accident casts the Scot Iain Patterson as the Welsh clergyman Sir Hugh Evans, and the Welshman Robert Tear as the French Dr Caius, but both are more than up to mauling English in the appropriate style.

The credit or blame for excavating Sir John from the archives must go to Seén Doran, the recently departed Artistic Director. Adding operas written in English to the company's repertoire was one of his big ideas, and a pretty good one. The use of supertitles was also one of his ideas, and seemed to do no harm in this production, although the singers' diction was good enough that few of the audience may have felt the need to raise their eyes.

HE Elsom



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