★★★★ FALSTAFF, LIVERPOOL PHILHARMONIC HALL Bryn Terfel leads a merry dance
Even seemingly immortal singers grow old. Sir Bryn is closer to the "Martinmas summer" of Shakespeare's and Verdi's Sir John than when first he put on the fat suit at the Royal Opera 18 years ago. Even if he walks the gouty walk that matches the belly, vocally he seems richer than ever. Maybe not quite the definitive operatic Falstaff of our era - that honour falls to Ambrogio Maestri - but a suitable planet for the variable young moons of Liverpool's European Opera Centre to revolve around, at least two of them shining bright. With the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra very much present on stage, mostly behind Amy Lane's concert staging, this was always going to be a classy realisation of Verdi's inexhaustible comic swansong.
Not that Vasily Petrenko is quite the born opera conductor. He doesn't seem to relish every orchestral burp, titter and cheerful song that make his players equal partners in the action. Though he looks round occasionally to the singers, he rarely accompanies them so closely; that became immediately apparent when the jabbing that goes with Dr Caius's demand for an answer wasn't quite in sync with the singer (though tenor William Morgan worked alongside Max Zander's Bardolph and Lancelot Nomura's Pistol to serve up the righ comic side dishes).
The razor-sharp buoyancy that lifts the greatest of Falstaffs, the kind we've had from Abbado and Jurowski, only fitfully surfaced in orchestral passages (the uproar around "Va, vecchio John," for instance). But the Liverpool strings were a model of personality, forged by Petrenko over the years, from the brilliance of the tavern scenes to the exquisite fade of the Polonaise to which the Windsor folk anticipate the final gulling. And among the pleasurable details you don't always hear from the pit were the military trumpets when Falstaff tells the disguised Ford that "gold is a good captain that marches ahead". There are always new things to hear in this treasure-trove of a score.Lovely cor anglais playing, too, from Anna Wheal.Two scenes worked as well as I've ever heard them, with Act Two Scene One's visitors to the Garter Inn. Young Polish mezzo Wanda Franek may well be the most voluptuous Mistress Quickly the opera has ever seen; most important, she has the comic chest tones for "reverenza" and "povera donna". With time, could she become the Amneris and Azucena the world so badly needs? And I've never seen baritone Mark Stone (pictured above with Terfel), stepping in for Anthony Clark Evans, give a better performance than this Ford; it's no small order to match Terfel for tone and character, but his energised acting was absolutely up to the mark and the jealousy aria gave the biggest goosebumps in the show.
The other experienced trouper, Terfel's fellow Welsh singer Rebecca Evans (pictured below on the right with Barbara Massaro's Nannetta, Franek and Anna Dowsley), produced the ideal expansive phrasing for Alice Ford's mockery of her "shining star" over lecherous Falstaff in an otherwise not quite crisp enough first ensemble scene - there seemed to be a bit of wrong-footing in Act 2 Scene 2's "gaie comare di Windsor", too - and her sense of fun was ideal for the merriest of wives; Australian Anna Dowsley still did what she could as the ever-overshadowed Meg Page.Where youth mattered most, it didn't quite shine. Barbara Massaro needs to pull the core tone into focus, though she floated some of Nannetta's top notes rather well; Turkish tenor Murat Can Guven should be useful in less nuanced tenor roles than the scrupulous-sensitive Fenton, whose Windsor Forest solo lacked moonshine (not so Timothy Jackson's magical offstage horn). Petrenko took their two little duets in their first scenes together too ponderously.
There was enough fun in Lane's staging, complicit with lively side-titles, to have the audience constantly laughing out loud, and Terfel gallery of gags kept it focused. Fine-tuning might have included a fuller basket of laundry - and what there was, it should have been remembered, is dirty, so hardly much point in folding it up. And couldn't the "fairies" have been allowed to really pinch and poke the horned Falstaff?
Tim Baxter's videos high on the back wall had lots of charm, not least in painting pretty nature-scenes that had us yearning for spring and summer, and came together with the lively young chorus's twinkling lights in the final scene. And yes, this sent us out feeling much better than we'd come in, though with a masterstroke of a caution in Falstaff's piano solo "tutti gabbati" ("all are mocked") before the final joyous blaze of the great fugue; only a charisma as big as Terfel's could have held the audience in the silence around that the way he did.