fri 19/07/2024

Falstaff, CBSO, Gardner, Symphony Hall Birmingham | reviews, news & interviews

Falstaff, CBSO, Gardner, Symphony Hall Birmingham

Falstaff, CBSO, Gardner, Symphony Hall Birmingham

A concert performance with big voices and a bigger heart

Ambrogio Maestri: Falstaffissimo!Unicoop Firenze

Edward Gardner gives the downbeat, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra bursts into Verdi’s great opening guffaw. Enter stage left Graham Clark, as Dr Caius. Enter stage right Ambrogio Maestri, as Falstaff. And before a note has been sung, the audience is laughing. I know that in the post-Dumpygate era we’re not supposed to discuss a singer’s physical appearance.

It’s just that everything about Maestri – his stature, his gait, his rolling eyes, his genial manner and his big rubbery smile – suggests that he was born to play the Fat Knight. He simply is Falstaff.

That being so, he’s not merely witty in himself, but the cause that wit is in others. His very presence on stage creates a glow of warmth and good humour. It made an excellent starting point for this concert performance, the final instalment in the CBSO’s Our Shakespeare season. Concert performances of opera are an annual CBSO fixture, and a necessary one in a Second City that sees fewer than 25 live performances (seriously: performances, not productions) of opera per year. Andris Nelsons has been at the helm for most of the last decade, and some might say this was an overdue chance for the CBSO’s principal guest conductor to give Birmingham a taste of what ENO audiences enjoyed for eight years.

This wasn't the subtlest 'Falstaff' but its heart was right where it should be

One change was noticeable immediately. Nelsons’s various Wagner and Strauss operas were concert performances, with singers parked very firmly at music stands. No director was credited tonight but Gardner’s cast gave what was almost a semi-staging – entering, exiting, darting about and forming conspiratorial huddles on either side of the stage. The men chose their own variations on evening dress – Nicholas Pallesen (Ford) in black and white patent leather shoes, Peter van Hulle (Bardolfo) in a grubby top and cut-off trousers – and the lights dimmed to create the moonlight mood of Act Three. Seeing a suitably red nosed Hulle dangling his legs over the front of the stage, or Fenton (Sam Furness) and Nannetta (Sofa Fomina) tiptoeoing through the percussion section, all added hugely to the sense of theatre – and fun.

And Gardner certainly knows how to assemble a cast. Corinne Winters (pictured below), as Alice Ford, was a perfectly chosen foil for Maestri: all knowing smiles, flashing eyes and sassy self-confidence, with a voice as bright as it was expressive. Falstaff didn't stand a chance. Jane Henschel found tenderness as well as a hint of steel as a Mistress Quickly who was very much one of the girls while Clark, Hulle and Lukas Jakobski (Pistola) made a suitably gangly bunch of reprobates; reedy of tone and exuberantly in character (it helped that Hulle is small enough to be physically lifted off his feet and bounced up and down by Maestri).

The darkness of Justina Gringyte’s mezzo as Meg Page was nicely chosen to set off Winters’s soprano, just as Pallesen’s tighter, harder-edged baritone made him a suitable contrast and adversary for Falstaff: a combative figure, with a menacing flash of Iago in his jealous outbursts. And gleaming through it all, Fomina’s sweet, sunlit singing as Nannetta: a luminous performance, which Furness (deputising for an indisposed Allan Clayton) matched in ardour if not sonic beauty.

They played off each other like a dream, and it would be a joy to see this lot together on stage. At times, it really felt like they were - swept along by Gardner’s brisk, fluid tempi and the all-pervading presence of Maestri: whether singing a mocking falsetto as warmly and richly as his great monologues, sitting back and drumming his fingers with a huge, satisfied smirk, or unleashing a truly volcanic surge of black, sonorous tone.

Unfortunately, he needed to do that: the one serious problem with this performance was balance. With an orchestra who were audibly straining at the leash, you can understand why Gardner must have been tempted to let rip. The CBSO sounded like they were having the time of their lives, launching themselves at Verdi’s score like they were playing a Strauss tone poem. The result was that passages such as the Act Three fairy music felt a lot more physically present and less magical than they might have done, while big climaxes were almost painfully loud. Maestri, voice swelling like some glorious tailcoated bullfrog, could power through: not everyone could. In Symphony Hall’s acoustic, that really shouldn’t happen.

Still, in this of all operas, holding back isn’t really the point. This may not have been the subtlest Falstaff, but its heart was right where it should be. The laughs in that first scene just kept coming. Elspeth Dutch’s offstage horn solo was enchantingly misty and poetic and by the end, with Maestri beaming at the audience and the assembled cast smiling and embracing even as Verdi’s closing fugue was still whizzing to its finish, the sense of enjoyment in the hall was irresistible. Tutta nel mondo è burla: after the best part of a decade of German operatic opulence in Birmingham, there couldn’t have been a happier or healthier way to break the Nelsons spell.

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