Laughter is indeed the best medicine. As we try and make sense of the continuing political fallout post EU referendum, the CBSO offered the perfect prescription in the ample form of Verdi's Falstaff. “All the world's a jest!” quips the fat knight, leading the terrific closing fugue, “but the best laugh of all is the one that comes last.” Even given the restrictions of a concert performance, the jocular presence of Ambrogio Maestri, leading a fine cast, meant that this was a season finale that went off with a giant belly laugh.

Ambrogio Maestri © Dario Acosta
Ambrogio Maestri
© Dario Acosta

To say that Maestri has made the title role his own is an understatement. He simply is Falstaff, inhabiting his character even without any trappings of costume. His warm baritone filled Symphony Hall with ease, from growling exclamations of “Ladri!” to falsetto impressions of his supposedly enamoured Alice. But what makes Maestri's Falstaff incomparable is his appetite for the text; he greedily savours every word, inflecting each with distinctive flavour. He is a vocal actor nonpareil. We don't just laugh at his Falstaff – we laugh with him. We empathise with him too. His hangdog expression and lugubrious “Mondo ladro” as Falstaff bemoans the wickedness in the world struck a chord, I suspect, in many of us. “Everything's going downhill.” I know the feeling, pal.

Although this concert performance lacked a lot of the visual comedy – Falstaff squeezing himself snugly into a laundry basket, dressing up in his finery to woo Alice, or masquerading as Herne the Hunter – it still radiated good humour aplenty. There were precious few props, but still a sense of drama as singers – performing off-book – entered and exited each scene, although suspension of disbelief was required when Ford and his henchmen, searching for Falstaff, somehow seemed to miss Maestri cowering behind a gerbera! Maestri's physique du rôle meant he towered over the cowering Bardolph and lifted Alice clean off the ground.

Corinne Winters © Rebecca Fay
Corinne Winters
© Rebecca Fay
Corinne Winters, in peachy voice, offered an impish Alice, leading Windsor's 'Merry Wives' in their plotting to teach Sir John a lesson or two. Deliciously phrased, Winters' Alice is the real deal, soaring in ensemble, sighing in mock adoration at Falstaff's clumsy courting. Justina Gringyte's razor-toned, but wicked-humoured, Meg provided a striking contrast, while the Nannetta of Sofia Fomina was sheer delight, floating her A flat on “luna” rapturously at the end of her first brief rendezvous with Fenton. Jane Henschel's Mistress Quickly was a tad uneven – a sturdy lower register and a finely-spun top to her contralto, but the chasm between them not always elegantly negotiated.

Nattily hoofed in black and white brogues, Nicholas Pallesen was a sturdy, rather than an exciting, Ford. There's little bloom to the top of his baritone, so the dramatic climax of his jealous monologue “E' sogno o realtà?” never quite caught fire. Sam Furness was a most English, gentlemanly Fenton, cleanly hitting top notes without force. Graham Clark, still in excellent voice, was a wonderfully splenetic Doctor Caius. A ruddy-nosed, bright-toned Bardolph from Peter Van Hulle and a lumbering Pistol from Lukas Jakobski, even if he does swallow most of his words, completed a lively cast. On occasion, the patter in Act I's nonet threatened to derail – all it takes is one singer to miss his/her cue – but the ensembles mostly rattled on wittily.

Cast apart, most of the joy came from Ed Gardner's assured handling of the orchestra. Verdi's miraculous score fizzes and teems with detail and the CBSO revelled in it, from double basses scrabbling around like elephants en pointe as the disgruntled Falstaff recovers from his Thames dunking, to wispy flute fluttering skywards in the great 'Honour' monologue. Horns whooped their cuckold motif gloriously, gauzy strings accompanied Nannetta's Queen of the Fairies. Sir Edward Elgar, describing his Introduction and Allegro, referred to its “devil of a fugue”. No fugue is as fiendish, though, as that which ends Falstaff and Gardner kept tight control, each cog ticking away merrily. As Maestri uttered the words “Tutti gabbàti!” (All are cheated), he pointed his finger at every one of us... and we all laughed together.