Verdi’s Falstaff is an opera which I have usually found it easier to admire than to love, but English Touring Opera’s production, which has been going round the country since October, is exceptionally endearing. I hope that they might keep it in their repertoire — so many of the best things this company has done have disappeared, while I’m sure that many people who have seen them once would be happy to go to a repeat performance a few years later — what happened to their wonderful Fidelio, for instance? Falstaff is probably the biggest challenge to date, demanding the utmost in precision from the performers, while needing never to lack spontaneity and tireless zest.
ETO has risen to the occasion, and a considerable part of its success is the brilliant reduction of the scoring done by Jonathan Dove (I believe, though I can’t find him credited in the programme). The orchestra is very small, though Verdi wrote for a large one, and went in for an uncharacteristic intensity of colour. There are moments in this production where one misses the full orchestra, for instance in the passage in Act III where the frozen and embittered Falstaff drinks his sack and one instrument after another begins to trill, until the effect is of cosmic vibration; here that went for little. On the other hand, one of the most brilliantly original features of the score, the way in which melodies are passed from voice to orchestra and back again, which gives a paradoxical impression both of seamlessness and utter diversity, registered more clearly in Dove’s version, with everyone very much on the qui vive.
The title role was taken by Andrew Slater, a baritone in bass’s clothing (and actually slimmer, padded, than the Bardolph was naturally), but he sang beautifully, expressively, even if the poignancy and pain in the role mainly escaped him. It didn’t escape the Ford of Craig Smith, who gave as convincing an account of this role as I’ve seen, both in his pinched appearance and the ferocity of his singing. Among the wives, all good, Wendy Dawn Thompson’s Meg Page was notable, if only because this part is often almost overlooked. Production touches were economical but witty, and so was Stuart Stratford’s conducting. This is a triumph which I want to see again.
Roger Scruton is more familiar to readers of The Spectator as an impassioned polemicist and cultural commentator, registering horror at the fearful excesses of liberalism, social progress, the vanishing of ancient pieties and taboos, than as an opera composer. But any Scruton observer (I go back 42 years) will have been agog to see how, with all his versatility, he measures up as not only the librettist but also the composer of a full-length piece, about the life and entourage of Violet Gordon Woodhouse, a highly colourful character who was happy to be surrounded by men as long as she wasn’t in bed with any of them, and who played a lively role in the performance of old music on old instruments in the early years of the century.
One of Scruton’s most striking gifts has always been his capacity for assimilation of a vastly miscellaneous assortment of data, whether facts, opinions, tastes, hostilities. In Violet he has found a most suitable vehicle for his abiding concerns, and has skilfully dramatised a group of eccentrics who are as indelibly English as it was once possible to be. In presenting them without exactly either endorsing or severely criticising their arrogant and self-regarding, preening mode of being, Scruton has managed to be an artist, and though there is a heavily nostalgic overlay to the whole thing, it’s possible to loathe every last character, and to feel that, at least so far as they were concerned, the Great War didn’t come a day too soon, without loathing the work. People tend to react very differently to this kind of thing when it is presented categorically as ‘England, an Elegy.’
The action takes us, in retrospect, from the growth of Violet’s circle and her artistic enterprises, through the understandably strained relations among the bevy of her fans, ranging from youth with unbroken voice through tenor to the lower registers, and on to the War in which all their dreams were shattered. There is one bit of surprising melodrama — but this is nearly all based on fact — when the drunken butler murders two inconvenient old ladies, so that Violet can pursue her heady encounters with the early-musical modernists. Then comes disintegration, individual and social, the disappearance of a way of life, and so on. And the music? Scruton can keep things on the move, if at a seemingly unvarying tempo; he is melodious without any actual melodies; climaxes are threatened and arrive pretty soon, though the possibilities for war music seem to have been exhausted. There is a lot of near-pastiche, though it often means to be closer to the originals than it is, I think. The second of two performances was fluent, confident, under the experienced Clive Timms, with a group of young singers who had learned a huge amount of text. It was over-amplified in the Guildhall School’s concert hall, though, to a degree where it was blurred. It was an enjoyable occasion.