It's nothing short of a privilege for Welsh National Opera to be able to cast the title role in Verdi's Falstaff with Bryn Terfel. Throughout this performance at Llandudno's Venue Cymru, there was a sense of Terfel giving back to his home crowd in exchange for the loyalty they've shown him over the years, indeed his rapport with the audience even threatened to hijack the evening at several points.
Yet there's no escaping the fact that Terfel's interpretation of this role is amongst the greatest operatic creations of our times. He seems to revel in Peter Stein's production (in which he played the role of Ford almost two decades ago), in which Terfel is alone in drawing on both the serious and comic elements of the character. In the first act, he sits in his chair and scarcely stands up, yet the range of gestures in his voice is splendidly varied; he draws the audience in simply by the power of his voice and the textual nuance he brings to every word. Then he springs to his feet for the 'L'onore!' monologue, turning his wooden table on its side and using it as a blackboard on which he draws the word 'onore' (honour) and crosses out all the letters. It's a striking action that strengthens the notion that Falstaff is delivering his philosophy for life.
The evening in general comes together after a slightly tepid first act, and so too does Terfel's Falstaff grow. The interaction with Quickly and Ford gives him something to play against, and at this performance his rendition of 'Quand'ero paggio' was a lesson in clear diction and text delivery. Words really aren't sufficient to describe the beauty of sound Terfel is capable of producing, nor his control over his voice; for instance, I've rarely even heard such a gorgeous falsetto, which enhanced the sections when Falstaff is imitating women's voices. The second scene of Act II was simply hilarious, with Terfel falling backwards into the basket and dropping into the Thames with a great sense of comic timing. However, I did feel that he overdid the slapstick, causing the audience to break out into so much laughter that the music became inaudible and in consequence completely undermining the all-important expression of true love in the Fenton-Nannetta duet (which one couldn't hear). I also thought that Terfel did not quite communicate the lecherous aspect of his scene with Alice Ford convincingly, because he didn't take even his feigned desire of her seriously; in all honesty, I enjoyed Robert Hayward's performance of this scene in Opera North's recent revival of the same opera quite a lot more. But the audience loved Terfel's exuberance, and rightly so.
However, the third act was what marked this out as a supreme interpretation. The curtain goes up to reveal Terfel sitting on a bench outside the inn, shivering from the river water into which he was flung in the previous scene by Alice's servants. The sadism of this punishment, albeit well-deserved, hit home as I've rarely witnessed before. The tragedy of Falstaff's life came across with a searing poignancy, and it was only enhanced by the rather violent, brilliantly-staged final scene, where Falstaff once more gets a beating.
From the point of view of Terfel, the revival is an utter triumph: a much better vehicle for his portrayal than Graham Vick's ghastly Royal Opera production in which I saw him perform in 2003, and a tantalising indication of what a marvellous Hans Sachs he'll be for WNO in 2009-10.
Yet in truth, the rest of the evening was hit and miss, with both enormous highs and disappointing lows. One problem was merely logistical but it had artistic repercussions: the scene changes were so lengthy, due to the complexity of the solid sets, that the tension generated by the first scene in each of the three acts was to a degree dissipated by the amount of time it took to move the scenery; on top of this, there were two intervals. The opening scene of Act I was barely longer than the time it took to dismantle the Tudor Inn set and replace it with the exterior gallery setting of Ford's house for the second scene. Again, for me Lucio Fanti's set for this scene was nowhere near as effective as that for Matthew Warchus' Opera North production (though Moidele Bickel's costumes are out of this world): a tower in the centre of the courtyard seemed to lead nowhere, and the lack of any garden furniture or plants made the set rather plain and empty-looking. The humour and warmth of the great ensembles of this scene didn't come off at all, largely because of the aimless staging. However, a return to Falstaff's dwelling in Act II, Scene 1 led to an increase of atmosphere, aided by Christopher Purves' superlative Ford. Apart from a strained top, Purves' strong voice and presence did much to enhance the drama, in particular his genuine rather than hammy emoting during his great aria. Terfel and Purves were an excellent combination, their scene together providing much humour. The second scene of Act II was also very funny, the highlight in terms of staging being the moment when Terfel hid behind a screen and twirled it round while moving across the stage, though here I felt that Stein's lively direction overcame a less than helpful set.
But in Act III, the production took on a kind of autumnal glow that considerably increased my emotional engagement. To have the women move softly around the shadowy gallery observing Falstaff at his business and Ford at his schemes was extremely effective and a much better use of the space than had been the case in Act I. Then the final scene was even more atmospheric: when the people of Windsor emerged with their lanterns and lights as if from nowhere, one really could empathise with Falstaff as he suffered this frightening gulling. Had Stein brought more darkness (in contrast to the comedy) to the earlier acts, the production would have been almost perfect.
In terms of stage presence, only Janice Watson in the role of Alice Ford could equal Terfel's Falstaff. After a slightly understated performance in the first act, her voice revealed new steel in the second, and her scene with Terfel was outstandingly characterised and strongly sung: here were two great performers in their prime. I can't wait for Watson's Elisabetta in Don Carlo at Opera North, not to mention her ENO Marschallin in May. A name to watch, Claire Ormshaw was also excellent vocally as Nanetta, easily outshining her rather heavy-voiced Fenton, Rhys Meirion. Anne-Marie Owens was disappointing in the role of Quickly, her voice not having the requisite depth of tone and her diction lacking the clarity needed for this pivotal character, though she was a lively actress. Neil Jenkins' Bardolph, Anthony Mee's Dr Caius and Julian Close's Pistol were all good but not great, and Imelda Drumm was a pretty and attractive, if slightly underprojected Meg Page.
Michal Klauza conducted with accuracy and care but stayed shy of many of the details and the grit of the score: where, for instance, was the heartache in the horns at the end of Ford's aria? Although admirably sensitive to the singers, Klauza was not able to explore many of the tensions within this incredible score (though the dreadful acoustic of the theatre didn't help): memories of Sir Colin Davis' brilliant, vibrant concert performances of the piece with the LSO a few years ago (now available on CD) remain untouched. On the other hand, the orchestral musicians themselves were excellent: very secure brass and woodwind playing hugely increased the pleasure of the experience.
On balance, then, this is a revival in which the sparks fly when the main star is onstage but lacks focus elsewhere. Yet the memory of Terfel in the title will linger for many years, and opera fans in Southampton and Milton Keynes should take note of the fact that the Welsh bass-baritone has agreed to sing the role in those cities now that Roberto de Candia has withdrawn due to ill health. Don't miss it.
WNO's Falstaff plays tomorrow night in Llandudno and continues to Milton Keynes and Southampton with Bryn Terfel in the title role.