Live opera requires many people to make it work, a huge challenge with unpredictable public health rules. Happily, Scottish Opera has found innovative solutions and has risen to the occasion with a splendidly life-affirming Falstaff (a co-production with Santa Fe Opera). Directed and designed by Sir David McVicar on top form, this started its run in a covered car park at Scottish Opera’s premises in Glasgow, but transferring to Edinburgh, it was exciting for all to be back in a real theatre once again. I am sure it was a relief for the singers not to battle with the noisy M8, police helicopters and the weather.

Roland Wood (Falstaff)
© Julie Howden

McVicar takes a full Jacobean approach with sumptuous period costumes and a Shakespearean Globe-inspired simple wooden fixed set of symmetric staircases and balcony, a working skeleton offering creative space which McVicar packs with mischievous detail. In Glasgow, the orchestra was in an adjoining room and relayed to the audience, with singers lightly miked to match the mix. In Edinburgh, this format was retained with the full orchestra hidden behind the set, conductor Stuart Stratford appearing on monitors to those on stage. The sound engineer team from The Warehouse did a terrific job of stitching it together making it all appear normal.

Roland Wood gave a towering central performance, in all ways, as Verdi's roguish knight who gets his comeuppance twice thanks to the Windsor wives who outwit the men at every turn. He finely balanced the knockabout humour with the pathos and darkness of the old knight living it large but now well out of his time. Alastair Miles as a Cockney Pistol and Jamie MacDougall as a Glaswegian Bardolph were both in splendid voice, the pair entertaining in their capers, pranks and mercurial allegiances.

Sioned Gwen Davies, Gemma Summerfield, Elizabeth Llewellyn and Louise Winter
© Julie Howden

Elizabeth Llewellyn (Alice) and Sioned Gwen Davies (Meg) were a finely sung pair of merry wives, targets of Falstaff’s identical amorous intentions. Louise Winter relished the character part of Mistress Quickly as she out-foxed the knight. Gemma Summerfield gave an exceptional performance as Nannetta, her Queen of the Fairies magically floating notes with pure beauty. Aled Hall was a studiously peevish Dr Caius, Philip Rhodes an outraged Ford, delightfully scheming as Mr Brook, and Elgan Llŷr Thomas was a sweetly love-struck Fenton. Although ensembles could be slightly untidy at times with the musical forces dispersed, there was good vocal balance.

Phillip Rhodes (Ford), Aled Hall (Dr Caius) and Alastair Miles (Pistol)
© Julie Howden

Falstaff can tip over into pantomime, with the set-piece laundry-basket tumble into the filthy Thames, but McVicar took a more subtle line with judiciously balanced storytelling and detail. There was a well-pitched level of stage “busyness” as a silent team of actors added slices of life through colour and movement to the main story – a labouring gardener was planting out his vegetables in the distance as the wives plotted, the seedy Garter Inn had a cast of characters, many of whom first appeared from under the grubby linen of Falstaff’s huge bed at the start. Fergus Wood was Falstaff’s boy servant Robin, proudly bearing the knight’s banner, but banished from the room when the action – and Amanda Holden’s English translation – became too earthy for young ears.

Associate costume designer Lorna Price and team excelled themselves with period detail and changes of stunning, bright and sumptuous frocks for the ladies, Falstaff’s garb wonderfully over the top when out on his quest. Best of all were the assorted gowks and ghouls of Herne’s Oak, a series of phantasms straight out of Hieronymus Bosch leaving the audience agog. Lizzie Powell must have been thrilled to see her lighting designs fully realised in a theatre.

Roland Wood (Falstaff) and Elizabeth Llewellyn (Alice)
© Julie Howden

I did miss the percussive musical bite that gets lost in orchestral relays, but we quickly became accustomed to the soundscape. Stratford drew a steady, measured performance from his players, with fine solo work and supporting his singers well. In the joyous final fugue, we were allowed a peep through the set to the orchestra. 

Edinburgh, like all major cities has been hit hard with the loss of both the daytime and night-time economy. Walking to the theatre, there was lots of empty railing space, unheard of in August. Everybody I spoke to was delighted just to see people in the city again enjoying themselves, and although we were a masked audience of 380 in a 1900-seat venue, this production gave a much-needed power-punch of enjoyment to kick-start the city's festival. It’s fun to be back, and thrilling to be in the same room as a performance once again.

****1