Odyssey Opera’s conductor Gil Rose said in a recent interview [here] that he had wanted to mount a production of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Falstaff opera Sir John in Love for many years. On Sunday afternoon at the BU Theater, he showed us why.
There were chuckles and outright laughter at the comic antics. There were smiles of delight at the recognition of some well loved tunes. There was terrific singing and sharply on-point acting. At the end there were extended cheers and bravos and applause. Sir John in love triumphed in what was apparently its North American premiere. It was a palpable hit. The question is: Why did it take nearly 90 years for an opera of such richness, humor, and charm by the most popular English composer of the 20th century to make it to America?
The answer certainly has nothing to do with the quality or the attractiveness of the work. The composer’s biographer Michael Kennedy suggested that Vaughan Williams himself was partly responsible. As a man of independent wealth (he was, like Charles Darwin, a descendant of Josiah Wedgwood, the creator of high quality English chinaware that competed successfully with imported china from the Far East), Vaughan Williams never relied on professional production of his operas—and the grand rights fees they provided—to earn his living. As a result, he seems to have been content for Sir John in Love to receive its premiere from a student ensemble at the Royal College of Music (conducted by Malcolm Sargent) in 1929, a year after he had finished the work. Its first professional performance did not take place until 1946, at Sadlers Wells. Thus the opera might have been “tainted” with the subconscious idea that it was merely a show for students to put on.
Yet on the evidence of the Odyssey Opera performance on Sunday afternoon, it is a work that fully repays the attention of a professional production, one that offers great delight in its handling of a Shakespearean play turned into opera, in its very attractive, often beautiful music, and in its excellent production qualities on this occasion.
Not in the least deterred by seeming to compete with Verdi’s great comic opera Falstaff, Vaughan Williams chose to stick more closely to Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor than Verdi had done. (Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boito excised most of the complexities of plot to concentrate on the figure of Falstaff himself, and enriched his role by adding lines from the Henry IV plays.) The only other Shakespeare opera I know that manages to use mostly the poet’s own words and to stay so close to Shakespeare’s original is Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The production by Odyssey Opera is a delight in every respect. The singing of the large cast was excellent from top to bottom, with clear English diction that made the opera immediately comprehensible even without super titles. As a result, the audience’s attention is focused entirely on the stage rather than being to some degree distracted by a screen over the stage in an attempt to catch all the words. ( However useful supertitles can be, in a comic, even farcical work like The Merry Wives of Windsor, the physical interactions on the stage are sometimes far more important than the actual text, especially when many characters are involved in madcap farce.)
This is a significant point, because the opera was amusingly staged by Joshua Major, who brought each of the singers to life with effective, natural, and funny reactions to the situations while handling the large cast on the relatively modest stage of the BU Theatre. Major is a superb stage director for opera. He respects the music and enlivens it in the physical embodiment of the singers. He did this last year with Verdi’s early comedy King for a Day, which had long suffered from a reputation of being not very funny. Major brought out the humor of the work in a way that was entirely natural and delightful. He did the same with the more evident humor and farce in Sir John in Love.
The orchestra played with refinement when called for and with rowdiness when necessary, as it occasionally was. Under the direction of Gil Rose the pacing, color, and balance were all excellent.
Stephen Dobay’s scenic designs, mostly dominated by a half-timbered backdrop, with furniture and props brought on as necessary by members of the chorus, was uncluttered and effective in hinting at the period of the opera. Katherine Stebbins’s costumes contributed equally to the effect, ranging from beautiful gowns for the merry wives to wonderfully scruffy leathern outfits for Falstaff’s scruffy companions.
Most opera-lovers who encounter Sir John in Love will come to it after knowing Verdi’s Falstaff very well, so it is perhaps worth noting some of the differences in the libretti, which have important consequences for the characters and their music.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is centered on the fat, self-loving, penniless scoundrel knight Sir John Falstaff, who thinks he has found a way to obtain some wealth by having an affair with each of two “merry wives,” Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who control the funds for the household accounts. The two ladies are central figures in Verdi’s opera, but there one of the husbands, Page, has been eliminated from the story, for streamlining purposes. The Pages have a marriageable daughter, Anne, whose hand is sought by a number of suitors unlikely as romantic figures, but favored by one or the other parent, while she loves a young man named Fenton. The retention of Page in Sir John in Love has some consequences: quite aside from his own fairly significant role, his presence also motivates a considerably larger part for his wife as they each support a different possible spouse for their daughter. (In the Verdi opera, Anne, or Nanetta in Italian, tacitly becomes the daughter of the Fords.)
One of the hopeful suitors, Slender, spends much of his time trying to write a love poem to the girl, but no matter how hard he concentrates with pencil and notebook, he never gets beyond, “Oh, sweet Anne Page!”–an amusing example of poetic incompetence. Another suitor, Dr. Caius, is a pompous French physician, whose English is strongly inflected with his native language (and who even sings an actual 16th-century French chanson, “Vrai dieu d’amours,” to illustrate his passion).
Three of Falstaff’s hangers-on, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol, have been brought over by Shakespeare from his Henry IV plays. Nym is omitted in Verdi’s opera, but all three appear here. Mrs. Quickly plays an important part as go-between in both operas, but the Host of the Garter Inn, where Falstaff lodges, has a much larger role in Sir John in Love (in Falstaff he does little more than present a bill to Falstaff, which makes the knight decide that he must do something to improve his finances, and that sets the basic plot in motion.
Musically, Vaughan Williams’s score is notably different from Verdi’s (aside from basic style differences of the two composers) because of RVW’s long study of English folk music, which he employs richly in the course of this score. Many passages are built entirely on folk tunes that he collected, though he noted that the tunes were chosen for musical character alone, and that the titles have no connection with the actions in the opera. This is certainly true in most cases, though one might wonder about the moment when Falstaff announces to his flummoxed followers that he intends to make love to Ford’s wife. The musical accompaniment to the sensation that this announces causes is a well-know Elizabethan tune, “John come kiss me now,” which is developed through the rest of the scene.
Most of the tunes are deployed less obviously (as part of the orchestral accompaniment, providing basic mood and rhythmic character). But the one song is actually sung by Mrs. Ford, accompanying herself on a lute, when Falstaff is about to arrive for his assignation. This moment draws almost a gasp of recognition from the audience, because it is, quite literally, the music known to virtually everyone as “Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves,’” which Vaughan Williams produced as a standalone orchestral gem by taking this passage from the opera, along with an earlier tune heard offstage from Mrs. Quickly, “Lovely Joan,” as its middle section.
The large cast that Odyssey Opera has assembled for Sir John in Love is filled with singing actors who project the music and the plot with charm, humor, and verve.
Most centrally, bass Oren Gradus (well padded) is an excellent Falstaff, projecting both his apparently unstoppable self-confidence and the recognition of his own folly when he has been thoroughly tricked. The two married couples—Ford (Michael Chioldi) and his wife (Courtney Miller), and Page (George Cordes) and his wife (Mara Bonde)—are involved in the battle of the spouses, all clearly carrying their vocal parts and words. Probably the singer who most benefits from Vaughan Williams’s approach to the story is Mara Bonde, whose Mrs. Page has more to do than in Falstaff (and here she is a soprano to Mrs. Ford’s mezzo); she delights particularly with her clear diction and especially responsive stage presence. Ford has the largest serious moment in the opera when he contemplates the thought that his wife has actually accepted a private meeting with Falstaff; Michael Chioldi carried it off with energy and strength. Later on, he was suitably humbled when he realized that his jealousy was pointless and his wife refused, for a time, to forgive him.
The two lovers—Anne Page (Megan Pachecano) and Fenton (Samuel Levine) were warm, funny, and passionate by turns, soaring in elegant lyricism and preventing parental control from destroying their own plans.
Falstaff’s henchmen Pistol (James Demler), Nym (Johathon Cole), and Bardolph (Stanley Wilson), were happily individualized on stage and in their singing, always working for their own successes in a way just short of buffoonery. The suitors Slender (Jesse Darden), Dr. Caius (Sumner Thompson), as well as Shallow (Ethan Bremner) and Sir Hugh Evans (Mathew DiBattista) were likewise entirely effective in projecting diverse personalities in their smaller parts. And Robert Honeysucker, as Mine Host of the Garter, both took part in the plotting on behalf of young Fenton and in stopping a planned duel between Sir Hugh and Dr. Caius, with his familiar warm vocalism and excellent diction.
Once again Odyssey Opera has offered to Boston an opera never seen here, but one that is well-deserving of a production, and they did so in a way that provided musical and theatrical delight. There is more to come in the British festival, but even if this had been the only event planned, it would make a fitting climax to Boston’s musical season.