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There’s a certain circularity to the workings of the country-house opera world. For over half a century, Glyndebourne held sway, but since the establishment of Garsington, followed by other summer-opera outfits in the 1990s, there has been fairly regular recycling. When Wasfi Kani left Garsington to set up Grange Park Opera at its original home in Hampshire, she rescued old velvet seats from Covent Garden. Now in its fourth year on Bamber Gascoigne’s estate at West Horsley Place, GPO has just rescued a homeless orchestra – players recently dumped by Garsington – which, rechristened as the Gascoigne Orchestra, will share duties with the BBC Concert Orchestra this summer.
And then there’s Bryn Terfel, who in the title role of this season-opening show at GPO is recycling a career’s worth of experience as Falstaff. Several productions now seem to feed into his portrait of the Fat Knight: he first sang the part as long ago as 1999, and has taken it around the world. But when he repeats it now, it’s with diminishing returns. Back then, he deployed a rock-solid, magnificent bass-baritone in performances full of detail; while it’s still recognisably Terfel, it’s no longer an exciting voice.
Even so, his tonal dryness and lack of flexibility would matter less had he not become so generalised in his response to Verdi’s great text. Singing Falstaff is not only about having a powerful voice, but also producing lightness where the score demands, and there is little of that here.
Would a stronger directorial hand – or possibly more time with the star in the rehearsal room – have made any difference? It isn’t easy to be fresh in Verdi’s final and frequently-performed masterpiece, yet coming from Stephen Medcalf, a director known for bringing elegant simplicity to the stage, this is a disappointingly dull and messy production. Set in the Shakespearian “period” – unimaginative, perhaps, but not a problem in itself – the staging features drab designs by Jamie Vartan that evoke not so much Windsor Park as a theme park in Windsor. The Merry Wives hang sheets with half-timbered motifs on their washing lines. Old-fashioned, hammy acting is the order of the night, and despite Falstaff being one of the greatest comic operas, no one laughs until after the long and boozy dinner interval – even then, not very much.
Crackling humour is to be found, however, in the music, and Gianluca Marcianò conducts a taut performance, even managing to supply bite in the opening passages despite a reduced and distanced BBC Concert Orchestra. Unlike Falstaff himself, the orchestra is less “fat” than usual, and the sound less full-bloodedly operatic, yet Marcianò still shows how the instruments colour and illuminate the text. Where some ensembles suffered from first-night raggedness, the final act’s fairy music had wonderful delicacy.
Though there are few (if any) true Verdians on stage, some excellent voices stand out. Natalya Romaniw is a glowing Alice Ford, soaring confidently at the head of the quartet of Merry Wives. Her soprano is vibrant and her stage presence lively: she’s altogether the most Italianate performer in this Falstaff, although David Stout’s Ford sings with a dark and muscular tone. We know that Ford is obsessive, but the focused baritone projected by Stout in the “jealousy” monologue amply confirms it.
Janis Kelly, always a stalwart performer, is a lively Meg Page, sounding in better vocal shape than Sara Fulgoni’s Mistress Quickly. Luis Gomes and Chloe Morgan make their mark as the young lovers Fenton and Nanetta, the soprano especially for the silvery thread of tone she spins in her scenes. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Lukas Jakobski make a lively duo as Bardolfo and Pistola, despite ordinary vocal resources, but Mark Le Brocq is much more complete in what he brings to his nuanced portrayal of Dr Caius.
Ultimately, despite just one big name in the cast and only a couple of singers really worth hearing, this Falstaff succeeds as an ensemble performance – and Verdi’s operatic signing-off in the final fugue, ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla’ (“All the world’s a jest”) rollicks to a close just as it should.
Until 18 July. Tickets: grangeparkopera.co.uk; 01962 737 373