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

Saint Cuthbert’s Church
Thursday 23rd August

With its ninth nation-touring production, Opera Bohemia has recently completed its touring itinerary of Verdi’s Falstaff. I caught them at the end of the Fringe at Saint Cuthbert’s Church in Edinburgh, the same place where I witnessed OB perform Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi a couple of years ago, which to this day remains my favorite peformance of any opera, it was just so well done. One of the reasons was how the ensemble handle the nuances of comedy with extreme vivacity, & I was very much looking forward to seeing what they could do with one of those cultural rarities – a Verdi comedy. There were only two in fact, composed fifty years apart – ‘Un Giorno di Regno‘, the second opera of his long career, and of course Falstaff, his last, composed upon the approach to 80. ‘Un Giorno’ is a bit shoddy & surely made Verdi realise comedy was not his forte; but perhaps the failure had always haunted him, & on creating Falstaff would use all his talents to create a comic masterpiece.

After having relentlessly massacred so many heroes & heroines,
I have at last the right to laugh a little
Guiseppe Verdi

Andrew McTaggart (Falstaff) © Opera Bohemia

Andrew McTaggart (Falstaff)

Falstaff is presented in three acts, with the libretto adapted by Arrigo Boito from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, plus a sprinkling scenes from Henry IV, parts 1 and 2. A pastiche, then, it tells of farcical efforts of Sir John Falstaff to seduce two married women in order to gget his grubby hands on their husbands’ wealth. Premiered in February 1893, at La Scala, the quibbling Verdiphile purists hated it, & it may have slipped between the cracks but for Toscanini’s championing of the piece. By 2018, the popularity of Falstaff emanated majestically from a full-pewed Saint Cuthberts, while OB’s excellent & atmospheric 11-piece orchestra played the opening strains to the expert wand-weaving of Alistair Digges.

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

Hazel McBain (Nannetta) and Seumas Begg (Fenton) – their ‘Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola’ was a delight

Witnessing opera at Saint Cuthberts is a joy, I simply adore the crystalline audionics. As for the performance, Andrew McTaggart was vitally commanding as ‘Immenso Falstaff, Enorme Falstaff,’ who frollicked all over Verdi’s adventurous score. Both Catriona Clark (Alice Ford) & Fiona Mackenzie (Meg Page) looked beautiful, sang soprano beautifully, & pulled off the amorous gamesladyship with glamor & guile. Between them, Hazel Mc Bain’s Nanetta fluttered about, while Douglas Nairne pulled off a fantastic & dramatic job as the jealous Mr Ford.

Experiencing the kettleboiling operatics of Falstaff is like going on a speedboat ride – there’s barely a moment’s rest, & in the hands & voices of OB it was all so jolly. & so fun, & so expertly sung. Falstaff requires a strong cast of ten principals, & each flowed equally into their rich pool of talent. Production wise, Elizabethen England had been shunted forwards a few centuries; The House of Ford was now a department store, which is expertly transformed into the Windsor Great Park for the bullish finale. The famous laundary basket scene, where Falstaff is thrown into the Thames inside of one, was another clever piece in a long procession of top-notch stagecraft – here a desperate McTaggart is squeezed inside a packing case marked with a capital F. Director Adrian Osmand has given us an authentic opera, sung in Italian (with subtitles), creamy as gelato, & best off all, funny. He who laughs last, laughs loudest, & I’m still chuckling as I write this review.