No-one would suggest that Sir David McVicar has the ideal conditions for his pandemic-era return to live opera. His new rendering of Verdi’s Falstaff, which he has both directed and designed, premieres not in a theatre, but in a huge gazebo in the car park of Scottish Opera’s production studios in Glasgow.
The orchestra plays from inside the studio building, with the huge roller doors open, exposing only conductor Stuart Stratford to the physically-distanced, plastic-seated audience. Such conditions, needless to say, require that the music be amplified.
The production is similar, in many ways, to Roxana Haines’s wonderfully rough-and-ready staging of La bohème for Scottish Opera last autumn. The key difference, however, is that, whereas Haines’s Puccini embraced its status as an opera of relative poverty, McVicar’s Falstaff (which is a co-production with Santa Fe Opera in the United States) is a well-resourced work of opulent beauty.
The opera (which is sung in English translation) is played on a large, fabulously crafted wooden stage, which is dominated by a superb, two-level structure, complete with gantry and balcony. This splendid stage-upon-a-stage, with its numerous stairways for exit and entrance, is both visually impressive and, in the absence of the wings of a conventional theatre stage, cleverly utilitarian.
From the moment Roland Wood’s tremendously corpulent Sir John Falstaff is rolled onto the stage, lying on the large bed he rents at the Garter Inn, one senses that we are in for something special. As he wards off Aled Hall’s pompous Dr Caius (who suspects, with good reason, that Falstaff and his friends have robbed him), Wood inhabits entirely the role of the titular miscreant aristocrat.
The English baritone expresses perfectly Falstaff’s ludicrous vanity, cruelty and, crucially, also his pathos. The drama and humour of Wood’s playing, as his character embarks on his shameful quest to defraud two well-heeled wives of Windsor, is matched entirely by the richness and power of his singing.
McVicar has moved the tale forward more than 200 years to Jacobean England, reflecting, the director has explained, his interest in the possibilities of Falstaff as an Elizabethan unable to adjust to the changing times. In doing so, he has crafted an impressively tight work of operatic storytelling.
Such invention is par for the course for a director who is acclaimed internationally for productions that are characterised by both their creative imagination and their fidelity to the operatic text. For instance, his 2008 rendering of Strauss’s Salome, for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, manages to shock some modern opera goers in its honest evocation of the Biblical story.
The cast of his Falstaff is universally marvellous, from Alastair Miles and Jamie MacDougall as the disreputable Pistol and the very Scottish Bardolph, to Louise Winter’s busy go-between Mistress Quickly. Phillip Rhodes impresses as the energetically suspicious husband Ford and his deceptive alter-ego, Mr Brook.
Meanwhile, soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, whose Mimi illuminated Haines’s La bohème, brings a similarly beautiful depth of expression and emotional intelligence to the role of the Windsor wife Alice Ford. McVicar has expressed his desire, as designer, to make this a “gorgeous” Falstaff. He has incontestably done so. From a Vermeer-esque housemaid to Falstaff’s preposterously ostentatious finery, the design is as precise as it is sumptuous.
In the midnight masquerade of the final scene, McVicar takes the figurative handbrake off, delighting his audience with an extraordinary panoply of characters ranging from a fabulous, larger-than-life Queen Elizabeth I, to Cervantes’s Don Quixote and, even, one of the fantastical avian-human creatures from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch This is, then, a joyous, hilarious and luxurious Falstaff, and one well worthy of its transfer, next month, to the Edinburgh International Festival.