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Witty and Entertaining

'Sir John in Love', reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


The programme book for English National Opera's new production of Ralph Vaughan Williams opera 'Sir John in Love' (seen Saturday 4th March 2006) states that the opera has not received a staged professional production since 1958. Thinking about it, I wonder whether any of RVW's operas have received staged professional productions since the composer died?

All RVW's operas are problematical. Hugh the Drover has a rather staid libretto by the leader writer of The Times; the operetta The Poisoned Kiss has a positively embarrassing book (despite some sterling work by Ursula Vaughan Williams in the 1950s). Riders to the Sea might be RVW's masterpiece but it lasts only fifty minutes and is tricky to place in a full evening of opera; Pilgrims Progress was called a morality by the composer and has rather an unoperatic cast to its construction which requires one to take it on its own terms. Sir John in Love is the most traditionally operatic of the group, it re-works the plot familiar from Shakespeare's play and Verdi's late masterpiece.

But Sir John in Love is not Falstaff, RVW had different intentions to Verdi and Boito. Boito simplified the plot, reduced the number of characters and strengthened Falstaff's part by adding speeches from Henry IV. RVW kept Shakespeare's full cast (twenty named parts), left as much of the plot as possible so that the 'Whitehall Farce' elements of Shakespeare's play are present; but RVW used contemporary Elizabethan/Jacobean poetry to give each of the characters their own lyrical moment.

So in Verdi and Boito's Falstaff, Falstaff is totally dominant, whereas RVW's Falstaff is simply primus inter pares. Thankfully ENO recognised this and gave us a wonderful cast of experienced and characterful Anglophone singers. Andrew Shore was glorious in the title role, all red hair and checked plus fours (Ian Judge's imaginative production sets the piece in the Edwardian era). Alastair Miles and Jean Rigby played the Fords, Russell Smyth and Marie McLaughlin played the Pages. Both Rigby and McLaughlin relished the fact that the opera gives the rare chance for singers of a certain age to display sexual allure, and they made a wonderful double-act. Miles was suitable over the top as the jealous Ford, displaying a neat turn for comedy but never guying the character so we retained sympathy and his 'pardon me wife' was profoundly moving. Sarah Fox and Andrew Kennedy made an attractive pair of young lovers. Fox has a lovely warm voice but does not quite have the Isobel Baillie-like clarity and focus the role calls for, but then voices have changed a lot since the 1920s. Kennedy was attractive and passionate though I would have liked a more lyric tenor voice.

Robert Tear and Iain Paterson were outstanding in the character roles of Dr Caius and Sir Hugh Evans, the parson; Tear sent up Caius's Frenchness unmercifully but Paterson understandably played down the parson's Welshness, which was a shame.

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Copyright © 8 March 2006 Robert Hugill, London UK


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