After seeing this bumper final opera of the academic year from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, you really have to wonder why Sir John in Love by Vaughan Williams has such a thin performance record. Driven by an infectious folky score and on one of the more stunning opera sets I have seen in a while, the Glasgow students had bags of fun with this Merry Wives story in a production positively bursting with sheer energy.

© KK Dundas
© KK Dundas

Although the opera was first performed in 1929 (at the Royal College of Music) director Benjamin Davis moved the action to the late 1950s, which gave designers Giuseppe and Emma Belli an excuse to go wild with bold colourful sets suggesting the 1960s knocking on the door. The Street in Act I was in deep perspective, painted in blue and gold abstract which cleverly opened out to reveal the traditional period interiors of the Garter Inn and Mistress Page’s modern 1950s kitchen – yes, there were even Cornflakes. The whole was overhung by a series of swirly egg shaped borders, allowing lighting designer Johanna Town to paint everything with changing washes of blues, pinks and oranges, teasing us gently with her visual trickery. For Act II, an abstract field gave way to “The Atomic Fusion” art gallery, with its bright modern sculptures, hanging silver spheres and big powder blue box for Falstaff’s escape. During the short orchestral interlude between the last two scenes, we were able to watch art gallery gently morph into Windsor Forest at night, with gently falling leaves. RCS has a Central Production Unit where students learn all the backstage skills from a team of tutors and this production was a particularly glittering showcase of their talents.

The story is the familiar Merry Wives of Windsor, set more famously by Verdi as Falstaff, yet here, Falstaff is only one in a whole community of many larger-than-life characters. This most twisted tale of love, desire, trickery and final happy resolution calls for a large cast of over 20 singers, many with substantial parts, and chorus on top. For this reason, this opera is a difficult challenge for professional companies, yet is perfect for a Conservatoire with large forces at its call. Musically, the score is peppered throughout with folk tunes, including Greensleeves (which Mistress Ford sings), yet there are beautiful lyrical moments too. The large orchestra under conductor Timothy Dean oozed warmth and brought this vivid score to life with distinctive haunting solos, colourful characterisations and lively dances.

© KK Dundas
© KK Dundas

Seen on the final night of its run, some smaller part voices were tiring slightly, but the current singers studying at the Opera School show a depth of quality, and their ensemble performance was excellent. Arshak Kuzikyan gave a genuinely characterful performance as Falstaff, strongly supported by the male cast, but it was the quartet of feisty women who truly impressed: Hazel McBain as Anne Page (the one people are queuing to marry), Penelope Cousland as Mrs Quickly and the Merry Wives themselves, Heather Jamieson as Meg Page and Eirlys Myfanwy Davies as Alice Ford, all in fine voice. It was a busy night for the chorus, variously as the folk of Windsor, as school football and hockey teams and as scary midnight spirits, coaxing a terrified Falstaff from under his pile of leaves in the forest and pinching him to administer maximum humiliation.

Vaughan Williams makes this music dance, and throughout the opera, the characters do likewise to comic effect. Choreographer Kally Lloyd-Jones also produced some wonderful set-pieces, particularly in the final act in the wood, where suddenly a forest of arms with twisting hands and fingers would appear thrust into the air before disappearing into the swirling melee of midnight fairies. The final stylised dance in between the verses of the lively closing chorus with the whole company moving in unison provided a breathtakingly exuberant ending.

© KK Dundas
© KK Dundas

It is exciting to see new opera singers at the start of their careers, with young voices getting to grips with the repertoire and learning to take direction. This year, I feel that RCS has upped its game as the singers, as well as developing their voices, have had emphasis placed on acting, ensemble and movement. It shows: the Conservatoire can be proud of bringing off a particularly special and enjoyable production.

****1