License article

One final dalliance with Shakespeare expertly spun in farce and fugue

Opera Australia,
Sydney Opera House, February 15, until March 16

IT IS no small matter for a composer to reinvent his or her style in a new genre when aged nearly 80. To do this while producing an enduring work that is arguably one's finest achievement, as Verdi did with Falstaff, the last offspring of his lifelong dalliance with Shakespeare, is virtually unique in operatic history.

The delight of Simon Phillips's 1995 production is it matches the swirling comic-opera momentum Verdi achieved in the score. It moves beyond the set aria styles that had previously been the foundation of his operatic language, with farce-inspired comings and goings on Iain Aitken's brilliant revolving set, which somehow seems to have more sides to it than three dimensions normally allows.

The result is cleverly choreographed chaos and that sense of continuous movement, interruption and diversion that is so essential to comedy. The singing is well done, though, with no absolute stars, and the musical direction under conductor Antony Walker is spirited without always being precise. Clearly relishing the score, the orchestra is engaged and absorbed, and the chorus work energised and attentive. Nothing dampens the joy of Verdi's late creative surge.

Warwick Fyfe's Falstaff is forceful, garrulous, deluded and deranged. His duet with Andrew Jones as Ford is fine comic music theatre. Jones's Ford is younger and more appealing than Verdi's stern patrician suggests, and he sings with a crisp edge.

Kanen Breen and Jud Arthur, as Falstaff's drinking companions, Bardolph and Pistol, deserve much of the credit for driving the momentum and keeping the foolishness fresh.

In this production, the final scene around the Oak of Herne sees the stage suddenly emptied, putting additional pressure on singers. Lorina Gore's aria, the nonsense of Falstaff's torment and fine chorus work ensure there is no hint of lost momentum and Verdi's magnificent final fugue - again, an audacious and unique gesture in a comic opera - brings down the curtain with exhilarating vividness.