“There’s only one way to finish better than with Otello, and that’s to finish triumphantly with Falstaff… to finish with a mighty burst of laughter – that is to astonish the world.” So wrote Arrigo Boito, encouraging an already tempted, yet hesitant Verdi to create one last opera. Verdi was acutely conscious of his age: the physical strain of composition had regularly taken its toll on him even as a young man, and he was now nearing eighty. But in Falstaff we see Verdi at his most daringly experimental: in his final opera he felt free to take more risks, to reject anything ‘useless’, to push straight to the heart of things. It’s the opera he waited his whole life to write. Bruno Ravella’s fast-paced direction for Garsington Opera honours Falstaff’s intense immediacy with a clear emphasis on dynamic physical and visual comedy underpinned by taut stagecraft, while still allowing time for its vital moments of pathos to breathe on stage in this subtle, elegant production.

A huge painted backdrop of Windsor Castle, beautifully lit by Malcolm Rippeth, glows behind much of the action, which is relocated to the end of the Victorian era, where the Merry Wives have become Suffragettes, prepared to bow to no man, let alone old, fat ones. Giles Cadle’s set design celebrates the Victorian printed image, with speedy scene changes as die-cut flats of a train station (complete with train), a damask drawing-room, or oak trees for the Windsor Great Park finale slide in and out, intersecting with the plain wooden stage. Cadle balances old-fashioned theatre-making with a clean, contemporary sharpness powered by the current fashion for Victoriana of all kinds, and the deliberately artificial tone of the set suits Shakespeare’s scheming, trick-laden plot. Falstaff’s tavern is the barest set of all, suggested merely by a doorway, a large trunk and, poignantly, a portrait of his younger, more glamorous military self: a place to exist, not to live, pointing to the hopelessness of a personal life permanently overshadowed by past glories. Floor panels emit a bottle of sherry, the dreaded bill, and later gape to swallow Falstaff as he is tipped ignominiously into the Thames.

Any Falstaff rises and falls by its eponymous hero, and Henry Waddington’s Sir John is a rather subtler characterisation than we might expect. Beginning from a surprisingly muted start, Waddington steadily excavates his character with forensic skill. With his unending self-delusions, and his secret fears about growing old, death is never far from Falstaff, and Waddington never lets us forget that, even as he girds his loins (literally) for his ill-fated romantic expeditions in kilt and sporran. Falstaff’s castigation of honour, and his first “Va, vecchio John” invite us inside the character, but it is when he emerges, filthy, from the Thames to sing “Mondo ladro. Mondo rubaldo...” that the devastating inner sadness hits us, and Falstaff’s connection to Rigoletto, another Verdi tortured clown, feels unmistakeable. Boito’s melding of the Henry IV Falstaff heightens his tragedy: that of a fallen star condemned to perceive his own fall. Conversely, his final self-justification, “I am... the cause that wit is in other men,” falls here as just another self-deluded, empty excuse: there is no valediction, though his punishment (entangled aloft in the ribbons of a maypole dance) is exceptionally gentle.

The strength and quality of singing across all roles is a delight. Richard Burkhard’s full-blooded Ford is thrillingly alive with anger and jealousy, a self-made wealthy Victorian industrialist with a strong look of Gene Wilder. As a bright, charismatic Alice Ford, Mary Dunleavy is mistress of all she surveys with her sparkling soprano, utterly in control of her marriage as well as her social circle. Ably abetting Alice is Yvonne Howard’s deliciously conspiratorial Mistress Quickly, intricately characterised and naturally comic with her agile, flowing mezzo and warm stage presence. Victoria Simmonds’ prim, privately jealous Meg Page works well as a humorous counterpoint.

Verdi’s iconoclastic writing demands, and generally receives, exceptional accuracy from the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Richard Farnes, as rhythms swirl and change, while moods turn on a hairpin. Farnes kept his team remarkably together, while Soraya Mafi (as a joyously lyrical Nanetta) maintained flawless focus in her stunning Queen of the Fairies aria, despite the reverberating basslines of a local pop festival occasionally and unfortunately invading Saturday’s performance. Mafi was a constant bel canto treat, her lustrous, superbly-controlled soprano pairing beautifully with Oliver Johnston’s plangent tenor as a bashful, endearing Fenton, idealistic young lovers wonderfully at odds with the transactional trickery around them. An expert comic turn from Colin Judson as Dr Caius, a nicely oafish Bardolfo from Adrian Thompson, a muscular Pistola from Nicholas Crawley and warm support from the Garsington Opera Chorus complete the picture. As Falstaff shoulders a scythe to disappear into the dark, Ravella closes with the ultimate existential joke: human mortality.