Comedy’s a funny thing. No, seriously, the business of making people laugh is as fragile, as mercurial as cryptocurrency — a constellation of shifting risk factors, many beyond control, any of which can kill a joke deader than Dogecoin.
Opera is already at a disadvantage. Timing — comedy’s accelerant of choice — is predetermined, dictated by the demands of unwieldy choruses and slow-moving sets, pinned down to the second by a score whose creator may be anything but a natural comedian. Just ask Verdi, whose early farce Un Giorno di Regno was such a comprehensive flop that he gave up the genre altogether for almost an entire career.
But at 75, all but retired after a sequence of bloody tragedies, the composer returned for one last shot at comic victory. The result is Falstaff, a comedy still arguably unsurpassed in the repertoire. Recent trends have seen it played as sitcom, a giddy reel of sight-gags and slapstick, but that’s not what we get from David McVicar and his grown-up new staging for Scottish Opera.
Best to say it straight: McVicar’s Falstaff isn’t funny — not in the laugh-out-loud sense, anyway. What we get here is warmth, slow-spreading operatic sunshine that seeps into your bones, accompanied by a cool tickle of dramatic breeze just bracing enough to keep things from slipping into languor.
We’re in the 17th century. Vermeer’s milkmaid bustles around a Star and Garter that has seen better days. We discover the crapulent knight beached on a bed of grimy linen, crawling with maidservants and (one assumes) lice — a grotesque Hogarth levée. This is the world of Pepys’s diaries, bloated with food and drink, all loose sexual exploits and even looser bowels.
The costumes are a riot of jewel-coloured silks; Ford’s money bag tumbles heavy on to the table and his lace collars are starched and embroidered perfection. But the children who swarm like mice fall desperately on food, and even Bardolph and Pistol feel a meal away from starvation.
The precarity of Sir John and his motley entourage is set against the wealth of Windsor’s merry wives, whose husbands, as Amanda Holden’s witty English translation reminds us, keep them lavishly, giving them plenty of leisure for scheming. It’s a check to any comic riot, a reminder of the social economics that underscore everything here, clinking pointedly in Verdi’s orchestra.
Scottish Opera’s car-park stagings have moved on since last summer’s back-of-a-van Bohème. We’re still outdoors, somewhere on the outskirts of Glasgow, but (Covid-willing) this elaborate production is ready to transfer seamlessly to the theatre during this year’s Edinburgh Festival. The setting even comes with incidental benefits. Windsor Great Park flowers green and very real at the back of the set, and there’s a witty Dunsinane nod when Herne’s Oak slides stealthily into position in Act IV.
There are more musical compromises, inevitably, but you have to admire the ingenuity that sees Verdi’s score performed live each night by a full-size orchestra in an adjoining warehouse (conductor Stuart Stratford just visible through an open doorway) and piped into the space. Singers are discreetly amplified and, if we could do with hearing rather more of Holden’s quick-fire text, it’s the only gripe in what plays with the directness of a musical.
The singing is top-notch, from Aled Hall’s puffed-up, petulant Dr Caius and Louise Winter’s quiet comic tour-de-force as Quickly to sweet-voiced lovers Elgan Llyr Thomas (Fenton) and Gemma Summerfield (Nannetta).
Comedy is balanced on a sword-edge of tragedy for the women of Falstaff, and Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Alice plays things straight, velvety tone tempering the role’s piquant humour with plenty of breadth. As for Roland Wood’s magisterial Falstaff —opulently sung from start to finish, thuggery pierced with sudden flashes of charm — it’s the finest you’ll hear in a summer that also boasts Bryn Terfel’s over at Grange Park.
La bohème has been described as a ‘rom-com gone wrong’, and the best productions all pull off the trick of setting up one show before delivering another, pulling the rug out from under the audience after the interval. Richard Jones’s Belle Époque staging, back at the Royal Opera, still doesn’t quite manage it.
It’s a show that sacrifices light-footed laughs for large-scale spectacle, and in the age of Covid, a half-size orchestra delivering Mario Parenti’s reduced orchestration under conductor Renato Balsadonna and only a handful of visible chorus members, it can’t make the most of its resources. Still, the snow falls very prettily and the tragedy comes cleanly etched in Dan Dooner’s revival thanks to a couple of strong performances.
Danielle de Niese’s Musetta doesn’t so much chew the scenery as swallow it whole, scandalising an unusually swish Café Momus with her knicker-throwing, table-dancing antics. Anna Princeva is a perfectly serviceable Mimi and Joshua Guerrero’s ardent Rodolfo leads a vocally impressive quartet of Bohemians. But the impact of the opera’s tragedy is powered by its comic backswing. Without the laughs it turns out we can’t have the tears either. Funny that.