Opera Australia’s production of Falstaff opens in the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House tonight, Friday February 15th, in its continuing ‘Verdi-fest’. Based on Shakespeare’s comic play The Merry Wives of Windsor, this production is directed by Simon Phillips and conducted by Antony Walker. Warwick Fyfe takes the title role with Amelia Farrugia as Alice Ford, Andrew Jones as Ford, and Lorina Gore as Nanetta.
The cast is led by the roguish Knight Sir John Falstaff sung by baritone Warwick Fyfe, and his opposite number, Ford, sung by Andrew Jones in a role debut. Amelia Farrugia has grown into the role of Alice Ford after portraying Nanetta in her last appearance in this opera. Taking the role of Nanetta is lyric soprano Lorina Gore, partnered by tenor John Longmuir as Fenton.
It is a quintessential ensemble piece with the women leading from the front – Mistress Quickly is played by mezzo soprano Dominica Matthews and Jacqueline Dark sings Meg Page. Catching their breath behind them are Graeme Macfarlane as Dr Caius and the buffo duo of Kanen Breen as Bardolph and Jud Arthur as Pistol.
Ben Oxley was at the final rehearsal and spoke to director Simon Phillips and Jacqueline Dark, of whom he asked:
“Which comes first, the music or the words?”
After considering this question, director Simon Phillips and Jacqueline Dark, find that there may be a third element to consider: the movement.
Phillips says, “Comedy in opera has to sit in its period.” He continues, noting the elements, which keep it tied to its period: “the washing basket – the Thames – it’s in the score. It is the story of a delusional figure coming to terms with his downfall.”
In Phillips’ experience “Singers say it’s a ballet. It demands incredible physical agility and accuracy, and it’s fiendishly hard to sing.” Maybe this is Verdi having the last laugh! The genius is in Verdi, who at an advanced age composed a “brilliantly written farce”.
As a singer, Jacqueline Dark describes her vocal line: “It’s very fast, with precise action. What appears natural comes from much rehearsal. That takes time.”
Opera Australia has placed Falstaff in a season largely devoted to big dramatic pieces. For those with less time and a preference for lighter repertoire, Phillips says, “As an opera, this production doesn’t require a great deal of patience.” “Good!” shrieks Jacqueline Dark. “How many times have you sat in the audience and wished you could move the action on?!”
Falstaff gathers a homegrown cast in stylish Shakespearean setting with set design by Iain Aitken, costumes by Tracy Grant, and lighting design by Nick Schlieper. Simon Phillips’ career spans both theatre and opera, in Australia and around the world. He was Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Melbourne Theatre Company from 2000 until 2011. For Opera Australia, Simon’s credits include La Bohème, Falstaff, L’Elisir d’Amore and Lulu. Across the Tasman he has directed The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni for Opera New Zealand and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Billy Budd for Hamburg State Opera.
So, in the best tradition of rollicking English games, Simon says … go and see it!
Ben Oxley for SoundsLikeSydney©
Ben Oxley is a singer, vocal consultant and theatre reviewer.
Falstaff is on at the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House on selected evenings from February 15th 2013 to March 16th 2013 at 7.30 pm, with a matinee at 1 pm on Saturday March 9th.