Classical Music Buzz > Classical music | The Guardian > Falstaff; Tallis Scholars – review

Royal Opera House; Cadogan Hall, London

The boos came as a surprise. They were aimed at the production team who lolloped onstage awkwardly for their bow, as production teams invariably do, after a smart, well-choreographed company curtain call which seemed all the more crisp and stylish in comparison. Those forlorn catcalls, loud but isolated, left barely a dent in the wall of cheers which greeted cast, chorus and conductor Daniele Gatti in a new staging of Verdi's Falstaff at the Royal Opera House.

Had you warned me I might enjoy this latest project by the Canadian-born director Robert Carsen, I would have raised an eyebrow, being fairly neutral towards Carsen's work and even – avert your eyes, blasphemy ahead – to Verdi's last masterpiece. Written in old age with a final flourish of inspiration, the score bristles with complex counterpoint, rapid madrigal patter, wild humour and explosive, trill-laden orchestration. Yet this musical brilliance far outstrips the uncomfortable amalgam of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV Parts I and II, out of which Boito constructed a libretto.

All goes at a cracking pace until fat, preening Sir John Falstaff is tossed into the Thames by the merrily cruel wives, on this occasion causing a delayed tidal wave to pour through the window into the 1950s-style dream home of Mr and Mrs Ford. The problem is the sagging third act. Since few directors manage to maintain the pace here, it must in part – more sacrilege – be a weakness of the work itself. Sir John, outstandingly sung and acted by the in all respects enormous Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri, mourns human wickedness in a long outpouring, never helped by having to stand in dripping long johns, a figure of folly and water-logged pathos.

The unravelling of the wives' deception takes place at midnight in Windsor Great Park, an interminable scene in which Falstaff is bullied and pinched black and blue by grown-ups pretending to be fairies or ghostly Herne huntsmen, here wearing identical antlers presumably borrowed, handily, from over their own fireplaces. Despite this treachery, Falstaff redeems the world from its universal cruelty by offering himself as the source of humour: witty, as well as "the cause of wit in others", but the moment is brief, the taste bitter.

Hunting was a key visual gag in Paul Steinberg's minutely detailed designs, all encased within huge, multi-purpose wooden walls – not so much Herne's oak as Herne's oak-panelling. Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes delight in tweeds, twinsets, hat pins, ruched gloves, pinched waists and big skirts. Yes, this will sound familiar to anyone who saw Richard Jones's matchless, similarly updated Glyndebourne staging, which immersed itself more in the suburban mock-Tudor of Joan Hunter Dunn than the stuffy shires of John Bull. At Covent Garden the opera opens with Sir John in bed in somewhere like the Connaught and ends at a hunt ball ripe for Jennifer's Diary.

The wives, in the score's most delicious, feather-light music, plot their duping in a smart hotel dining room: stiff napery, chandeliers and synchronised tureens. Alice Ford, sung with glee and esprit by Ana María Martínez, resembles the young Princess Margaret. Kai Rüütel's silver-voiced Meg Page is more muted, while Mistress Quickly, fearlessly and comically overplayed by Marie-Nicole Lemieux with fruity voice and un-shy cleavage, steals the show. No one else would get away with it. The Fords' shiny, well-equipped kitchen is the breezy setting for the linen-basket scene. Everything that can nest – spoons, ladles, saucepans, tumblers, tables, chairs – does nest. All this order is turned to chaos by a silent movie-style crowd of men in trilbies hunting the hard-to-hide knight. It's silly and well done.

Gatti coaxed superb colour from the orchestra, especially the ever-busy woodwind, and kept textures transparent to support the ensembles as they divided and reshaped in various contrapuntal patterns. With the exception of Maestri and Lemieux, no single singer stood out but mostly the ensemble was secure. The tenor Joel Prieto as Fenton and soprano Amanda Forsythe as Nannetta, the innocent young lovebird, were charming rather than exceptional, as was the Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis, whose Ford was under- or, if you prefer, over-characterised: he was dressed as an American cowboy. Despite these reservations, this was a buoyant and vivacious production, though given the mixed critical response some will regard it as a concept too far.

There was one misjudged distraction: the horse. A stuffed animal would have done just as well. Coming so soon after Ann Widdecombe's debut in La Fille du régiment, this quest for non-musical novelty begins to feel like clutching at straws. Bit between my teeth I rang the horse-hire company to check the price. Evidently business was brisk: there was no answer. I emailed the Royal Opera: how much was the horse? The official reply came: "It is our policy never to reveal the fees for artists." Artist? They obviously know their Catcher in the Rye. ("I'd rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God's sake.") Taking a lead from the opera's own gesture of honour, the ROH should now donate the equivalent of this 15-year-old animal's fee, plus Maestri's single riding lesson, to the Musicians' Benevolent Fund.

The dying Falstaff, according to Shakespeare, though beyond the action of Verdi's drama, babbled "of green fields" on his death bed. Not so many years later, Henry VIII of England met Francis I of France on a more elevated pasture near Calais: the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a lavish prototype for the jamboree Euro-summits of today. A notable difference, apart from some 2,200 sheep being consumed, was the presence of at least two composers: Jean Mouton (1459-1522) in the French camp, William Cornysh (1465-1523) in the English. 

As part of the Choral at Cadogan series, the formidable Tallis Scholars gave a thoughtfully constructed programme of works by these composers, including an Ave Maria from both and culminating in Cornysh's five-part Magnificat, one of the glories of the era. These a cappella meditations, interweaving plainchant and polyphony, sober canon and rhythmic surprise, take the listener as near extraterrestrial as you can get sitting in a concert hall. British musicians have cornered this area of repertoire.

Last week alone, as well as the Tallis singers you could hear Stile Antico (broadcast live from Oxford on Radio 3) on Monday or the Cardinall's Musick at Wigmore Hall on Thursday – three generations of vocal ensembles who excel in Renaissance music.

This style of singing may not attract the shouting headlines of opera stars but their virtuosity is equally exciting, their impact magical. If they want to whip up more interest with, say, a few onstage equine quadropeds, I could let them have the number of a reputable hire company who offer, as their promotional material says, the "complete package to suit the client", including anything from Tudor-style jousting to a rearing horse on set. At the risk of flogging a dead one, I'll stop there.

Fiona Maddocks
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