Theatre Review: Falstaff from Opera North

Words: Catherine Symes
Friday 10 November 2023
reading time: min, words

Absurd, but superb, full of naughtiness and fun - we went along to see Opera North's laugh-out-loud retro production, Falstaff...

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The curtain drops to find Falstaff, in a 1970s retro caravan on the outskirts of Windsor, surrounded by ne’er do wells and down of his luck. In an attempt to improve his fortunes, he decides to woo a couple of widows in the hope of swindling them out of their fortunes. Unfurling a drama and laughs worthy of any cheeky weekend in Skeggie. 

I have to admit that I have never been to an opera before and was worried that I might not ‘get it.’ Let me tell you it was superb. Absurd, but superb, full of naughtiness and fun. Once I recovered from the shock of them singing (yes I know… but it was still a shock) and allowed myself to indulge in the pure theatricality it all, I was pleasured by an evening of laugh out loud libretto (that’s the script btw), gleeful performances, a brilliantly retro set and the sensory pleasure of truly stunning musicality.   

Henry Waddington as Falstaff was obviously enjoying himself, as a lovable rogue. Delivering a virtuosity in simplicity and complexity of lines that was astounding and always entertaining. We had a set and costumes which brilliantly transported us back to the 1980s with a combinations of American soap’s, Del boy and Rodney, Boycie, some Greased Lightnin’ and police men with batons running round the bedroom in a scene worthy of any Benny Hill sketch. It was absurdity at its most entertaining. 

As a someone who is more likely to found at Rock City, this was an operatic conversion

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Falstaff is the last opera written by Verdi.  He was in his eighties, and clearly wanting to create delight from mischief. The story is taken from the Shakespeare play, The Merry Wives of Windsor with some scenes from Henry IV. By all accounts he threw everything at it. There are none of the familiar big arias in Falstaff, yet it is filled with a diversity and complexity of music that in the lightness of the production, you may miss the challenge it presents. Sung in English, the more experienced opera goers around me were in agreed praise of the singing and orchestration of this production. It was sung clearly with the easy-to-read screens to fill any gaps. I had no difficulty in following the plot. 

Opera North deliver Falstaff as part of their green season where the focus is on sustainability. This means local sourcing, the reusing of props and costumes across productions. The imagination used in this felt like bonus content. I particularly loved Deidre the small deer who was on stage, attentively, for every scene, the shop dummy come standard lamp. The antlers, sustainably sourced from Harewood House, became a bottle opener, a lampshade and some brilliantly metaphorical cuckold horns.  

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After the interval we were transported to the Windsor Great Park and a magnificent oak made of antlers that was truly magical. Nanetta, played by Isabelle Peters and Fenton, by Egor Zhuravskii had earlier delivered a beautiful duet and again we benefited from the magical brilliance of her voice and the entrancing tones of the elfin folk. In the final scenes we have Falstaff receiving what felt like a harsh comeuppance (I was invested by now), which was redeemed by his good humour and wish to us all for ‘laughter and happiness.’  The finale, which starts with soloists builds to a fantastic cacophony of the cast communicating both these sentiments, sending me home with a belief in the importance of saying everything in song! Much to the amusement of the bus driver. 

As a someone who is more likely to found at Rock City, this was an operatic conversion. A brilliant and funny production that was equally appreciated by the more knowledgeable opera buffs I spoke to in the audience, including the fans of the traditional and avant garde. I left laughing and singing and challenged to step out of my comfort zone and feel the benefit of the diverse cultural offerings that we have in our city.   

Opera North Productions at the Nottingham Theatre Royal as part of their Green Season include La-Rondine: Wednesday 8 November and Friday 10 Novembe, Masque-of-Might: Thursday 9 November, and Falstaff: Tuesday 7 November and Saturday 11 November 

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