Economy of consumption is not a quality you would naturally link with Shakespeare’s bloated, bibulous Sir John Falstaff. So there is a strong whiff of irony in Opera North choosing Verdi’s 1893 opera to open what is trumpeted as its “Green Season”, in which “all sets, props, costumes and materials are sourced from previous productions and current stock, or have been acquired second hand”.
A worthy aim, especially in such a naturally expensive artform, though in this set designed (or “assembled” might be a better word) by Leslie Travers, the result seems fairly random: a parasol with fairy lights, a dartboard, some lamps, a broken sofa and an irritating little stuffed deer, plus (in the Fords’ mansion) some handsome windows salvaged from a staging of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
The winning centrepiece is, however, Falstaff’s hand-me-down old caravan, a colourful showcase for the effervescent extroversion of Henry Waddington as the over-confident knight. His is by far the standout characterisation of this lively show, wonderfully articulated and crisply sung, with every word of translator Amanda Holden’s witty English rendering audible.
For this last opera by Verdi, his librettist Boito did not confine himself to the arguably weak text of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, but drew on Henry IV parts 1 and 2 to create a story focused around Falstaff’s ludicrous attempts to seduce both Alice Ford (Kate Royal) and Meg Page (Helen Évora), here a pair of desperate housewives having a huge amount of fun, led on by Mistress Quickly (Louise Winter). Royal’s voice may not now have all its former lustre but its range is unimpaired, and her sparky, vivacious stage person, garbed by costume designer Gabrielle Dalton in seductive pink and blatant red, is totally winning.
Évora is slightly pale by comparison, as are Falstaff’s companions Bardolph (Colin Judson) and Pistol (Dean Robinson). Alice’s husband Ford (Richard Burkhard) is admirably forceful, and the genuine love interest of Fenton (Egor Zhuravskii) and Nannetta (Isabelle Peters) is distinguished by Peters’s seemingly effortless floated top notes, a highlight of the evening.
Olivia Fuchs’s busy production is set a challenge by the sustainability objective: the question is whether the scenic compromises will undermine the telling of the story. On the whole, they do not, though the scene changes are over-long for such simple sets, and take the edge off the opera’s momentum. However, the cheery multicoloured plastic strips of the drop curtain allow two brilliant moments to close each half, first as the company laughs from afar as Falstaff is thrown into the Thames, and then as each member emerges in turn at the end to join in Verdi’s ecstatic final fugue.
Conductor Garry Walker drives the Opera North Orchestra vigorously, and coaxes some delicate sonorities from the wind in the wonderfully scored third act, though the overall sound feels a touch strident for this gloriously subtle piece.
In rep at the Leeds Grand until Oct 25, then touring until Nov 18; operanorth.co.uk