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The Gloucestershire contingent, Shallow, Slender and Simple were well characterised by Stuart Kale, Christopher Gillett and Richard Coxon. Slender and Simple were both one-note wonders; Simple only ever sings on two different pitches and Slender spends most of the opera trying to compose his sonnet beginning 'O Sweet Anne Page'. Neither singer went too over the top and both contributed to the gentle humour of the piece.

As the servants, Sally Burgess stood out as Mistress Quickly but Mark Richardson, Peter Kerr, Paul Napier-Burrows and Graeme Danby gave strong support as Rugby, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol. Nicholas Folwell was outstanding in the small but important role of the Host of the Garter Inn.

And what of the opera itself? It is not the towering masterpiece of Verdi's creation, but it is an enormously effective and charming work, combining humour, warmth and lyricism in a way entirely missing in Verdi.

It was performed in equal parts, each lasting around 65 minutes with the first part finishing with the exit of Sir John in all his finery (here a wonderful boater, striped blazer and lively waistcoat) to woo Mistress Ford.

RVW has much plot to get through in part 1; the opera flows smoothly in Ian Judge's deft production and Judge provides numerous entertaining and illuminating touches. RVW's writing is highly practical with scene changing interludes. Judge and his designer used a pair of moveable skeletons of mock Tudor-type buildings to create a series of flexible playing spaces; the set neatly doubled as both the Garter Inn and the mock Tudor semi-detached houses lived in by the Ford and Pages, echoing the Edwardian costumes.

But there were times in Part 1 when I felt the action flagged, through no fault of Judge and his energetic cast; RVW gave himself just too much material to cover. But along the way there were some wonderful movements such as Fenton's glorious wooing of Anne where RVW creates them a lovely duet. My favourite scene in the opera is the one where Mistresses Page and Ford read their identical letters (from Falstaff) in canon, followed by a lovely setting of 'Sigh no more ladies' sung by Mistress Quickly. The men's singing of 'Back and sides go bare' was especially lively and memorable; despite RVW's use of folksongs in the pieces, this was one of his own lovely folk-song-like melodies.

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Copyright © 8 March 2006 Robert Hugill, London UK


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