Verdi’s Falstaff at Glyndebourne

Ultz’s recreation of post-war Windsor — a fitting setting for a year in
which we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation
— suburban mock-Tudor has replaced the genuine article but it’s a familiar
world populated, much as in the historic past, by down-on-their-luck
aristocrats and aspiring social climbers. There are nods forwards as well as
backwards: the regimented cabbage plots amid the middle-class semis call to
mind that prior ‘age of austerity’, when the ‘Dig For Victory’
mentality was as common as ‘Grow Your Own’ economising is today.

We begin in a rather genteel, wood-panelled local saloon bar, The Garter
Inn; a portrait of George VI and an extravagantly antlered stag’s head
oversee proceedings — a reminder of the class tensions and cuckoldry which
will disturb the bourgeois complacency. Centre-stage sprawls Falstaff, ardently
typing amorous missives, audaciously and insouciantly adding to his alcohol
tab, and flamboyantly issuing commands to his senseless sidekicks, Bardolfo and

Laurent Naouri’s Sir John is imposingly wide of girth — thanks to an
impressive fat-suit — and generously resounding of voice. His authoritative
bellow vanquishes complaints from his snivelling underlings; with beguiling
tone, he serenades and courts the ladies. There is no doubting his haughty
bumptiousness and Naouri emphasises his essential aristocratic dignity. But, at
times this Falstaff is overly curmudgeonly, aggrieved that others do not
recognise his ‘nobility’ — an anachronistic note in 1950s England — and
his irritability and crabbiness do not endear him. Naouri is light on his feet,
despite the prodigious abdominal encumbrance, and can neatly execute a dainty
flounce. But, while the voice is sweet and enticing, this Falstaff lacks a
certain wicked sparkle in the eye and the debonair charm that might win a
feminine heart regardless of his physical decrepitude. Falstaff should be both
dignified and vulgar, both arrogant and aware of his own coarseness and comic
crassness — he should laugh at himself, so that we can laugh with him.

Part of the problem is Jones’ uncharacteristic lack of attention to comic
detail and gesture; there are a few neat touches — the faux leave-taking
courtesies of Ford and Falstaff, the obsequious pleading for forgiveness of the
perfidious Bardolfo and Pistola, the tidal wave which bursts through the
Fords’ front window when Falstaff tumbles from the window ledge and
belly-flops into the Thames — but most of the audience laughter was prompted
by the surtitles rather than the stage action itself (excepting the feline
wriggles of the furry puppet adorning the Garter’s bar-top). The lengthy
pauses between scenes, necessitated by some hefty scene-shifting, further
diminished the comic briskness. The sets themselves are neat and credible, and
troupes of rowing eights and girl guides add to the period feel — although
they have little relevance to the drama itself. Three such scouts cross-stitch
the local panorama across the front cloth before curtain-up, but it’s
stretching things somewhat to ask us to imagine that they have won their
needlepoint brownie badges creating a tapestry screen of Windsor Castle to
adorn Alice Ford’s morning room. The latter is rather sparsely decorated,
leaving few opportunities for chaotic concealment in what should be a farcical
man-hunt for the lascivious Falstaff during his lecherous assignation in Act

falstaff-4680.gifElena Tsallagova, Ailyn Perez, Susanne Resmark and Lucia Cirillo

The huge oak in the final scene is impressively anthropomorphic and, swathed
in unnatural colours by lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin, casts eerie,
dancing shadows. But, the scene is poorly choreographed, the stage overly
cluttered, and the ghoulish, lurid Halloween costumes — bought, presumably,
at the high-street Joke Shop depicted in the previous scene — sported by the
boy scouts and brownies are at odds with the Shakespearean mood of enchantment
and magic. More ‘trick or treat’ than Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Ultimately, these flaws in the staging do not overly trouble us, for there
is not a single weak link in the cast. Making her Glyndebourne debut, American
soprano Ailyn PÈrez was a self-possessed and spirited Alice Ford. Never
histrionic but always secure in her self-belief, PÈrez’ golden voice soared
lyrically; at times slyly coy, she commanded the stage with ease. Susanne
Resmark as Mistress Quickly, purposefully attired in an Auxiliary Territorial
Service uniform, demonstrated masterly comic timing, particularly in her scenes
with Falstaff — tongue-firmly-in-cheek, she relished the ironic resonances of
the mocking salutation, ‘with respect’.

Russian baritone Roman Burdenko was a proud, indignant Ford; Falstaff may be
the one with the title, but Burdenko’s powerful yet elegant delivery left no
doubt about his own sense of entitlement. In this production, Fenton is a GI,
and the Italian tenor, Antonio Poli exuded freshness and optimism, although he
was surpassed in graceful airiness by Elena Tsallagova as Nanetta, whose
angelic faerie supplication in Act 3 was the musical highlight of the evening.
Lucia Cirillo was a fiery Meg; Graham Clark as Dr Caius, and Colin Judson and
Paolo Battaglia — Bardolfo and Pistola respectively — completed the fine

Conducting much of the score from memory, Mark Elder led the Orchestra of
the Age of Enlightenment in a crisp but warm account, alert to every detail and
unfailingly conjuring deft musical humour even when the stage action was less
buoyant. The sombre, slightly melancholic tone of the natural horns coupled
with the darker gut string timbre, made for an unusual but convincing musical
colour. There was much fine playing and the instrumentalists fully captured the
conviviality and essential geniality of the work; they richly deserved their

Claire Seymour

Click here for a podcast relating to this production.

Cast and production information:

Falstaff: Laurent Naouri; Alice Ford: Ailyn PÈrez; Ford: Roman
Burdenko; Meg Page: Lucia Cirillo; Mistress Quickly: Susanne Resmark; Nannetta:
Elena Tsallagova; Fenton: Antonio Poli; Dr Cajus: Graham Clark; Bardolfo: Colin
Judson; Pistola: Paolo Battaglia; Conductor Mark Elder; Orchestra of the Age of
Enlightenment; The Glyndebourne Chorus; Director Richard Jones; Revival
Director Sarah Fahie; Designer Ultz; Lighting Designer Mimi Jordan Sherin.
Glyndebourne Festival, Sunday, 19th May 2013.

image_description=Laurent Naouri in Falstaff, Festival 2013. Photo Tristram Kenton
product_title=Verdi’s Falstaff at Glyndebourne
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Laurent Naouri

Photos by Tristram Kenton courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival