A Falstaff Opera in Shakespeare’s Words: Sir John in Love

The three operas
bear distinctive titles: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, by Otto
Nicolai; Verdi’s Falstaff; and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sir John
in Love
. Of these, only Vaughan Williams’s was composed to an English
text. Thus it has the special merit of allowing singers and listeners to relish
Shakespeare’s actual words.

The British firm Lyrita has recently released a studio recording made in
by the cast that, I assume, was currently performing the work at
Sadler’s Wells. (Sadler’s Wells Opera, in London, would later be renamed the
English National Opera.) Three of the singers had performed these same roles at
Sadler’s Wells during the work’s first run of performances there (1946). One of
them—Roderick Jones, the Falstaff—had sung in the opening night of the 1946
production and thus, as one says, had “created” the role.

The opera’s actual first, tryout staging had taken place seventeen years
earlier at the Royal College of Music. During the years between that student
production and the Sadler’s Wells premiere, Vaughan Williams added several
notable passages to the score that enrich it greatly.

The CD recording under review was made in the BBC studios in 1956 and
broadcast at the time, apparently with narrative explanations between the
scenes. (Only one of those spoken links is included in this release, just
enough to give a bit of period flavor.) Fortunately, many important BBC
broadcasts of important works and performances were recorded by a devoted listener, Richard Itter, at
his home on high-quality equipment
. Sir John in Love is one of a
number of these that are now being released for the first time—with permission
from the BBC and the musicians’ union.

The recording is the third commercial release of Sir John in Love
to reach the market, though it was the first of them to have been recorded. The other two are likewise studio recordings, but in stereo. One, on EMI
(1975), is conducted by Meredith Davies, with Raimund Herincx as Falstaff; the
other, on Chandos (2001), is conducted by Richard Hickox, with Donald Maxwell
as Falstaff. April Milazzo, in American Record Guide, praised the
Chandos recording (November/December 2001 issue), but she regretted that
Maxwell showed little
heft or personality in the title role. (Click here to get a sense of Maxwell’s
rather placid take on the role.)
I have listened to excerpts from that
recording and find it often entrancing, mainly because one can hear so much
more detail in the orchestra than on the 1956 recording reviewed here. The 1975
EMI recording also has many merits. (Click here for the final scene
of the opera as heard in the 1975 EMI recording featuring Herincx. The scene
begins with a prelude that Vaughan Williams would later expand and publish as a
separate orchestral piece: the Fantasia on “Greensleeves.”)

But the belatedly released historic radio-broadcast recording from 1956 may
well be the best point of entry for anyone who is unfamiliar with the opera,
for it vividly conveys the interplay between the characters and between
characters and chorus.

Opera lovers familiar with Verdi’s Falstaff will find that this
work takes a refreshingly different tack. Vaughan Williams prepared the
libretto himself, and skillfully. We get to experience many lively interchanges
involving secondary characters who are absent from, or greatly downsized in,
Boito’s libretto for Verdi, including Shallow, Slender, Peter Simple, and Dr.

Vaughan Williams also made the libretto more music-friendly by having
various of the characters, or sometimes the chorus, sing folk-like numbers
using poems and song texts from Shakespeare’s time—e.g., by Ben Jonson and
Philip Sidney. He also sometimes integrated entire tunes from the time. The
various “song” numbers are extraordinarily well integrated: for example,
Mistress Page sings an extended snatch of the folksong “Greensleeves” while
awaiting a visit from Falstaff, who then announces his arrival with his usual
self-importance by continuing her song. There are, at several points in the
opera, witty references in the orchestra to the well-known and, for this opera,
aptly worded folk song “John, Come Kiss Me Now.” The chorus often participates
actively, sometimes aligning itself with one or another character.

On those occasions when a situation in Sir John in Love is closely
parallel to one in Verdi’s Falstaff, Vaughan Williams handles it no
less expertly, though differently: for example, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford
have fun reading Falstaff’s letters to each of them in canon, something Verdi
did not choose to do.

The monophonic sound is extremely well engineered, as one would expect from
a BBC radio broadcast. One hardly needs to look at the libretto to follow the
main thrust of what people are singing. The singers generally show healthy
vocal production and clear enunciation. Standouts include a young Owen
Brannigan in the small role of the Host of the Garter Inn (a role he had sung
in the 1946 season) and a consistently lovely and intelligent-sounding April
Cantelo as Ann Page—one understands why several men in the play are attracted
to her!

James Johnston had played Fenton during the opera’s first season at Sadler’s
Wells, and he sings it here with clarity and power, clearly enjoying a tenor
role that is more substantial than the idealized teenager that Verdi created as
his Fenton. This eager lover is an appropriate match for Vaughan
Williams’s Ann Page, who is herself more substantial than Verdi’s
lighter-than-air Nanetta.

I found myself looking forward to the occasions when contralto Pamela
Bowden, as Mistress Quickly, would next enter the scene and take command of the
proceedings. John Cameron invests Ford with a splendid, Germont-quality
baritone and eloquent acting skills that help one sympathize with this, in some
ways, unsavory character. As for Roderick Jones, I kept forgetting that I was
hearing a singer at all: each utterance seemed so true to character. How lucky
for us that Jones’s reading of the title role got broadcast and “captured”!

Click here for numerous excerpts from the 1956 recording.

(And click here for
the entire scene in Act 2, in that same recording, in which Master Ford,
husband of Alice Ford but pretending to be a certain “Master Brook,” comes to
make an offer to John Falstaff.
The offer is that Falstaff, in exchange for
some money from “Master Brook,” will seduce Mistress Ford “between ten and
eleven” that same morning in order to cuckold Master Ford—i.e., the very man
who, disguised to Falstaff, is making the offer. The whole plan is of course a
trap for Sir John, set by Ford, his wife, and others. The dramatic effect in
this recorded scene is so specifically conveyed by John Cameron, Roderick
Jones, and the orchestra under Stanford Robinson that one can imagine the whole
scene in one’s inner eye.)

Anybody who is seriously interested in Vaughan Williams, or in the
challenges of setting a play to music, will be fascinated to listen to this
recording and will take continuous pleasure in it.

Conductor Martin Yates has put together an orchestral suite from Sir
John in Love
(apparently based on a two-piano version by the composer). Of
course the suite leaves out lots of wondrous stuff. A mid-way solution would be
to listen to the cantata that Vaughan Williams himself drew from the opera in
1931: In Windsor
, which can be heard in recordings conducted by Norman Del Mar

and (in an arrangement for women’s chorus) by David Willcocks.

There is also a
broadcast recording of a stage performance
of the opera on YouTube,
featuring Owen Brannigan as a superb Falstaff, and with everyone articulating
the words beautifully. Brian Priestman conducts with brisk authority. Alas, the
voices are haloed by an ear-tiring echo.

Perhaps, in time, Sir John in Love will find its way into repertory
status and thus become, finally, the first Shakespeare opera in English to
command a wide audience. (The closest contender for that at the moment is
Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—based on another comedy.) Why is
this wonderful opera not more frequently performed?

Ralph P. Locke

The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in
American Record
and appears here by kind permission.

Ralph P.
is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s
Eastman School of Music. His most recent two books are Musical
Exoticism: Images and Reflections
and Music
and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart
(both Cambridge
University Press). Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award
for excellence in writing about music. He edits Eastman Studies in Music, a
book series published by University of Rochester Press.


image_description=Lyrita REAM2122
product_title=Ralph Vaughan Williams: Sir John in Love
product_by=April Cantelo (Anne Page), Pamela Bowden (Mrs. Quickly), James Johnston (Fenton), John Cameron (Ford), Roderick Jones (Falstaff); Heddle Nash (Shallow), Parry Jones (Sir Hugh Evans), Gerald Davies (Slender), Andrew Gold (Peter Simple), Denis Dowling (Page), John Kentish (Bardolph), Denis Catlin (Num), Forbes Robinson (Pistol), Laelia Finneberg (Mrs. Page), Marion Lowe (Mrs. Ford), Francis Loring (Dr. Caius), Ronald Lewis (Rugby), Owen Brannigan (Host of the “Garter Inn”). Sadler’s Wells Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. Stanford Robinson.
product_id=Lyrita REAM2122 [2CDs]