The week in classical: Falstaff; Hallé; Leipzig BachFest; Dunster festival – review

·4-min read

A defining feature of Grange Park Opera – not the only one, and not typical of opera companies – is a sense of humour. The Surrey-based festival treats its central endeavour – the work it makes on stage or, in this past year, on film too – with complete professionalism, but takes equal delight in playfulness around the edges. Often these unite, as in an inspired version of Ravel’s horological opera L’heure espagnole, filmed in, and spilling out of, a small clock shop in Kensington. A browse on the company’s website will give you a sense of their jaunty approach. It will also show you the volume of their achievements in a year of lockdown, keeping alive the talents of some 250 artists (mostly singers, including many top names, but instrumentalists and conductors too).

With a mix of pizzazz and relief, not least at the fine weather, Grange Park’s 2021 season opened with Falstaff, with the star attraction of Bryn Terfel in the title role. Verdi’s final work, only his second comedy of more than two dozen operas, bursts with music of miraculous, witty genius, the orchestral writing restlessly inventive and fresh. With a libretto drawn from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and the Henry IV plays, it’s unlike anything in Verdi’s output, in pace, style, structure. Yet in its lampooning and derision it sometimes hits hard and uncomfortably. Falstaff may be a self-preening idiot, but the merry wives who ridicule him, one of whom calls for a tax on fat people, are pretty shrewish too. The sudden turn-about ending, with its dizzy, hurtling fugue – “tutto il mondo è burla”, loosely translated as “all the world’s a joke” – can leave a sense of desolation, rather than redemption. Since this is a hallowed favourite of many big-hearted folk, I accept I wrestle with its difficulties alone, or in limited company.

Grange Park’s production, directed by Stephen Medcalf, designed by Jamie Vartan and first seen in Parma in 2011, takes a restrained approach, which is preferable to the usual farcical tendency, and works. With the exception of Falstaff’s page – a small knight in full plate armour who clatters around a few times too often – the jokes are not overplayed. Terfel, who first sang the role in 1999, brings his masterly experience to every gesture, vocally and dramatically. To complain that his voice has changed in the intervening decades is like grumbling that Roger Federer’s tennis is different from when he turned professional (around the same time as Terfel’s first Falstaff). Wisdom and experience bring concentration and intensity. Stilled by his vast, fat-suited body, Terfel is the radial force of this traditional, uncomplicated staging.

In Natalya Romaniw he has a spirited, quick-witted and golden-voiced Alice Ford, with Janis Kelly (Meg Page) and Sara Fulgoni (Mistress Quickly) as her characterful accomplices. Articulation is excellent from all, every word audible. David Stout makes an attractive, bumptious and properly irritable Ford, with Chloe Morgan an outstanding, pure-voiced Nanetta. Ensemble in the awkward passages of rapid repartee was sometimes rocky on first night, but the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Gianluco Marciano, showed their colours with fine, secure playing.

In this teetering world of postponed unlocking, with travel an ongoing problem, streamed concerts remain invaluable. The Hallé orchestra’s programme of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, conducted by Mark Elder, is well worth watching. Elder’s conversations with the Hallé’s archivist, Eleanor Roberts – a regular feature of these streamings – reflects back fascinatingly on the orchestra’s long history. I caught the opening of Leipzig’s digital, 12-concert BachFest, a festival I’ve never yet managed to attend, in which Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra opened the 12-concert cycle of Bach’s cantatas and oratorios recounting the life of Christ. Other festival’s might take a cue from Leipzig, which is reducing its own carbon footprint by planting more than 126,000 trees to make a “Bach Forest”.

One other treasurable event: the committed advocacy and virtuosity of the violinist Daniel Pioro, with continuo support from cellist Clare O’Connell, at Somerset’s tiny Dunster festival. Pioro’s love of the music he chooses and talks about – here Rebecca Saunders, Cassandra Miller and Reiko Füting, alongside Biber and Bach – commands you to listen, even when a blazing sun outside beckons.

  • Falstaff is at Grange Park Opera, West Horsley, Surrey, until 18 July

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