Roger Hewland, of the much-missed Gramex CD shop, always spoke of Verdi as being first and foremost a man of the theatre. Falstaff, composed when Verdi was in his late seventies, is a work of phenomenal musical daring, a demonstration that, musically, Verdi had continued to evolve and experiment, but the sheer deftness of the characterisation of Shakespeare’s corpulent knight testifies to Verdi’s innate understanding of how to write for the stage. A good production is dependent on more than just a good cast and a couple of gags: it needs such precision of timing, a lightness of touch and, fundamentally, a sense of fun.

Robert Hayward (Falstaff) © Clive Barda
Robert Hayward (Falstaff)
© Clive Barda

The Grange Festival’s new production by Christopher Luscombe has this in abundance. Updated to 21st-century Windsor, Simon Higlett’s brilliant sliding set moves from the Garter Inn, complete with stylish hotel bar, to the Ford residence in moments. Fenton rides round on a little motorboat, doing quite an impressive u-turn at one point; admirers crowd around Falstaff with a selfie-stick; a brand new washing machine is installed for Alice Ford, just in time for the deliverymen to assist in dunking Falstaff. The man himself starts the performance in phenomenally bohemian attire, wiggling his toes cheerfully as he winds up Dr Caius, before changing into a majestic striped suit worthy of Ascot. Bardolph, proboscis a shiny red, starts in mustard trousers but looks just as good in his wedding dress in the second half.

<i>Falstaff</i>, Act 2 © Clive Barda
Falstaff, Act 2
© Clive Barda

It’s a sunny, good-hearted production, teasing rather than malicious, but it’s the impeccable timing and the superb character direction that makes Luscombe’s interpretation so enjoyable. He is fortunate in assembling a uniformly excellent cast with not a single weak link to be found. Our priapic Sir John was sung by Robert Hayward, in excellent voice, whose honeyed, resounding bass dominated the stage. Hayward looked the part, paunch proudly puffed out, exuding that air of fading aristocracy with casual grace. Diction was excellent and his amiable approach to his final embarrassment spoke to a Falstaff more to be teased than to be deplored. Elin Pritchard’s voice is developing into a really special instrument; it’s sizeable with plenty of depth and the registers are obviously well integrated – her forays at the top of the voice were a delight – but there’s a gorgeous warmth to her singing, a delicacy and a sense of humour that lightens the weight of her voice. Her Alice Ford was a boisterous, amiably conniving character, mischievous both towards her would-be lover and her distrustful husband; Pritchard made her a character you would long to befriend. Rhian Lois, singing her daughter, was a perky playful Nannetta, deploying some beautiful pianissimi, all ribbons of silk – a real triumph. Alessandro Fisher’s jean-sporting Fenton was an amenable sort who seemed somewhat bemused about the whole situation at times, but gave an ardent performance as Nannetta’s young beau with his supple, lyrical tenor.

Elin Pritchard (Alice), Angela Simkin (Meg), Rhian Lois (Nannetta) and Susan Bickley (Quickly) © Clive Barda
Elin Pritchard (Alice), Angela Simkin (Meg), Rhian Lois (Nannetta) and Susan Bickley (Quickly)
© Clive Barda

Graham Clark’s rather acidic tenor brayed and spluttered indignantly as Dr Caius, fastidiously dressed in blazer and slacks straight out of the Rotary Club wardrobe. Angela Simkin’s limber Meg was an excellent balance to Pritchard, a gleefully energetic stage presence with a twinkle in the eye and a vivid, colourful tonal palette in the voice. Overseeing it all was Susan Buckley’s Mistress Quickly, thwarting the men’s plans with sedate mirth, in fine dramatic voice. Nicholas Lester’s forceful declamations captured Ford’s insecurities with vivid insight and Lester’s depiction of his downfall was just as incisive as Falstaff’s own. Falstaff’s former henchman, Bardolph and Pistol were a gruesome twosome of Christopher Gillett and Pietro di Bianco, the former particularly enjoyable in his relishing of the ‘marriage’ to Dr Caius.

Robert Hayward (Falstaff) and Nicholas Lester (Ford) © Clive Barda
Robert Hayward (Falstaff) and Nicholas Lester (Ford)
© Clive Barda

Providing the icing on the cake was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Francesco Cilluffo, the playing taut and expressive, tempi perfectly judged. It’s rare to find an evening of comedy that seems to perfectly assembled, but the Grange delivered the full package.

*****