At the end of any academic course, students tend to disperse widely, but some remain in the area where they have studied. The Opera School at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has been training a generation of fine singers, some building international careers while others are busy soloists, ensemble leaders or in demand as key operatic chorus members. Opera Bohemia, founded in 2010, takes opera around many parts of Scotland with singers largely drawn from this pool of talent, giving us a snapshot of their early careers and perfect for Verdi’s Falstaff which requires a strong cast of ten principals. Early performances in this tour were with piano accompaniment, but these latter shows heading towards an Edinburgh Fringe finale were accompanied by a small orchestra of around a dozen players.

Andrew McTaggart (Falstaff) © Opera Bohemia
Andrew McTaggart (Falstaff)
© Opera Bohemia

The ageing Verdi wanted to write a comic opera, choosing The Merry Wives of Windsor as material with Falstaff the central figure of fun. It is the simple tale of a lovable rogue getting his just deserts through mischievous trickery with a happy ending for most. The success of any comedy is not just the story, but the way it is told, and it was impossible not to warm to the exuberance and comic deftness of this ensemble, sung in Italian and directed with spirit by Adrian Osmond.

A touring production needs a clever set that will adapt to theatres, halls and churches and most importantly, pack neatly into a van. Kenneth Macleod’s tiny Garter Inn, set with institutional swing doors, dumb waiter and wood panelling, was transformed smoothly over the evening before our eyes into a House of Ford department store, with places to hide and entrances multiplying as we reached Windsor Great Park, all simply but effectively lit by Grant Anderson.

There is no overture to this Verdi opera, setting a forward impulse to the work that plunges us straight into The Garter Inn with Andrew McTaggart’s splendidly rotund Falstaff enjoying his food and drink, presiding over a playful hiatus with Pistol, Bardolph and Dr Caius as he plans to seduce Alice Ford and Meg Page. Kenneth Reid’s Bardolph and Jonathan Sedgwick’s Pistol were a well-matched pair of rascals and Christian Schneeberger a stuffy Dr Caius.

Hazel McBain (Nannetta) and Seumas Begg (Fenton) © Opera Bohemia
Hazel McBain (Nannetta) and Seumas Begg (Fenton)
© Opera Bohemia

House of Ford department store finds Alice and Meg comparing identical letters, plotting with Mistress Quickly on how to get their revenge with Douglas Nairn as Ford a stern floorwalker. Hazel McBain and Seumas Begg were a thrillingly sung pair of would-be lovers Nannetta and Fenton, making the most of their romantic moments. Susan Moore’s rich contralto and gift for deadpan comedy was perfect for the go-between character part of Mistress Quickly, setting up a trap for Falstaff. McTaggart vocally opened out in a fabulously broad "Va, vecchio John" before Ford arrived as “Master Brook”, Nairn’s rich baritone edged with menace as he plotted revenge.

The laundry basket scene in a small space with a big singer is a challenge, but somehow everything worked, a dressing screen providing just enough cover to conceal characters at key points. Falstaff was stuffed into a large packing case with a stencilled capital F, lifting the lid in protest as the ladies eventually sat on it, good ensemble singing from Catriona Clark’s Alice and Fiona Mackenzie’s Meg. I am still not quite sure how the bundling out of the window was done, but there was plenty of fun to be had.

Christian Schneeberger, Jonathan Sedgwick, Douglas Nairn and Kenneth Reid © Opera Bohemia
Christian Schneeberger, Jonathan Sedgwick, Douglas Nairn and Kenneth Reid
© Opera Bohemia

Conductor Alistair Digges moved the music along briskly, the orchestra squeezed into the small pit in Stirling bringing vivid colour and excitement to the work, especially the bright woodwind and a dancing flute. I missed a bell as Falstaff counted down to midnight in the park, but the muted string chords provided night-time atmosphere. Digges was easy for players and singers to follow and held the busy patter choruses of the principals together well.

Fenton’s ardent duet with Nannetta "Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola" was a vocal highlight before the final scene, with Falstaff making an entrance as the Black Huntsman in a hat with ridiculously large antlers. With no extra singers for a chorus, the cast worked hard preparing Falstaff for a roasting, prodding him with forks (“Pizzica Pizzica!”) and stuffing an apple into his mouth. With Dr Caius tricked into marrying Bardolph, the foolery was over, the whole ensemble turned to the audience in a rousing final chorus  proving that he who laughs last, laughs best – irresistible  fun.

****1