Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Fulham Opera: Falstaff ****


By Mary Grace Nguyen

[Left to Right: Oliver Gibbs, Catherine Rogers and Keel Watson]

There’s much to enjoy about Falstaff; the final opera composed by Verdi. It refuted many of his contemporaries including Rossini and proved that he could write comedy operas just as well as his great tragic operas like La Traviata. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor, Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito produced a witty and vivacious opera that has charmed audiences since its premier in 1893. Now the little opera company Fulham Opera have stepped in and created a larger-than-life production of Falstaff at their resident St John’s Church.
Given the success of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, earlier this year, it is to no surprise the company’s musical director Ben Woodward has brought a blizzard of Verdi’s mesmerising score into the medium sized hall swimmingly. With a reduced orchestra, of double basses, strings and sassy woodwinds, on the left, the opera opens up with the church altar as a pub, with a beer dispenser, and our grumpy Falstaff dressed in a tracksuit shouting out, ‘Musica!’ to the orchestra. Then, the grand music and silliness begins.
Director Daisy Evans sets the opera in contemporary East London where sports gear, chunky earrings and caked on make-up co-exist. The opera follows Falstaff plotting and scheming to pay off his dues by seducing the rich wives Alice (Catherine Rogers) and Meg (Jemma Brown). He produces duplicate love letters, on tissue, which he unhygienically coughs and blows his nose on. His lackeys (Jonathan Finney and Antoine Salmon) are useless and clownishly back out of his scheme leaving Falstaff to hand the letters to his quiet pageboy Robin (superbly played by Richard Marshall) to carry out the deed.
Ford (Oliver Gibbs), Falstaff (Keel Watson) and Robin (Richard Marshall)
Yet these women are smart and well aware of Falstaff conniving plans that they decide to manipulate and exploit Falstaff with their own little game. As a consequence, Alice's husband Ford (Oliver Gibbs) suffers the brute of misplaced jealousy and designs a scheme of his own. Nonetheless it’s all done in good humour and everyone lives happily ever after.
The marvellous singing cannot go unmentioned. Keel Watson is our scary, farcical and arrogant Falstaff and he does an excellent job of singing like it. Having sung at world concerts, his experience flows and weaves between the most sweet and most heated arias. Also having witnessed Gibbs as the sorrowful Rigoletto with Opera Loki, again, he strikes a heart's chord even if there’s no deeper tragedy in the opera. His arias show Ford’s naïve jealously and loving loyalty to Alice which is exhibiting in Verdi's great music.
Hot pink booby top wearing Alice is excitingly sung by Rogers. She shows off her soaring voice while Perth born Roberto Abate’s manages to impress with his smooth tenor timber as the smitten lover boy Fenton. Caroline Kennedy as the tiny and impish Nanneta sang high notes as if they were second nature to her in an utterly butterly manner.
[Left to Right: Mrs. Quickly (Lindsay Bramley), Meg (Jemma Brown), Nannetta (Caroline Kennedy) & Alice (Catherine Rogers)


Stage gags include Falstaff handing a present: a piece of bounty chocolate out of its wrapper to Mrs Quickly who was cheekily sung by Lindsay Brown and Ford repetitively stealing Falstaff's beer away from him. The build up of the real farce, where Nannetta and Fenton are mistaken for Falstaff as he hides away in a pile of laundry, is rather messy, but gives the audience the giggle expected from the opera.
The music and cast were irresistible and engaging, yet it was a strain to watch at times as the stage was split between the altar and the back of the room with members running up and down of it. With that, some audiences had difficulty reading some of the subtitles. I can’t help but think that if the audiences’ chairs were positioned on one side of the room that they could have enjoyed it a bit more. Staging aside, the musicians’ talents and vocal tenacity of its singers cannot go unquestioned. Bizarrely funny and something Shakespeare would have laughed about too.  
For more information about Fulham Opera and to book tickets please click here. Next two showings are on the 14th and 16th November 2014
Fridays at 7.30pm, Sundays at 5pm
St John’s Church, Fulham: North End Road, SW6 1PB
My review ticket was provided by Fulham Opera and photos are courtesy of Fulham Opera.