wed 30/11/2022

Sir John in Love, British Youth Opera review - a delicious end-of-summer treat | reviews, news & interviews

Sir John in Love, British Youth Opera review - a delicious end-of-summer treat

Sir John in Love, British Youth Opera review - a delicious end-of-summer treat

A rare operatic staging marks Vaughan Williams' 150th anniversary

Director Harry Fehr transports his Elizabethan courtiers to 1950s Windsor.Alastair Muir

You’d be forgiven for forgetting that 2022 marks a rather significant classical milestone. Vaughan Williams’ 150th anniversary has scarcely troubled the Proms season beyond the odd symphony, and while most orchestras are doing their bit in the autumn, it takes predictable form. Larks will ascend, Thomas Tallis will be hymned, and Scott will make his doomed journey to the Antarctic to live symphonic accompaniment up and down the country.

But not at British Youth Opera.

The reasons to celebrate a company that’s been the finishing school for most British operatic talent (on-stage and off) for 35 years are legion, but it’s hard to look past programming that’s consistently surprising, and more than a little bit brave. English opera – particularly offbeat repertoire – is an ongoing theme, and recent seasons have seen productions of (among others) Owen WingraveSavitri and David Blake’s Scoring A Century.

BYO have stepped up this summer with a rare, full-scale staging of Vaughan Williams’ 1929 opera Sir John in Love. Writing in the programme for the 1958 run at Sadler’s Wells, the composer acknowledged ruefully that: “To write another opera about Falstaff at this time of day may seem the height of impertinence, for one appears…to be entering into competition with four great men – Shakespeare, Verdi, Holst and Nicolai”.

It’s impossible to escape the long shadows cast over the work; comparisons ambush you from all sides. A libretto created by Vaughan Williams himself from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (with a hotch-potch of other interpolated fragments) lacks the laser focus of Boito’s rewriting, but also the elegant clarity of Britten and Pears’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream abridgement. Sir John in Love is blowsy and generous, a celebration of Englishness whose drama spills over with characters, action and encounter just as its score bulges with folksongs – an operatic Victoria sponge, heavy with jam and cream.

And very delightful it is too. Director Harry Fehr moves Shakespeare’s drama of the gossiping middle-classes into the 1950s. Mink stoles and lingering social affectations rub up against a younger generation in pedal pushers for whom status is nothing and love is all. It looks great in designer Nate Gibson’s hands – a riot of boating blazers and cricket jumpers, comfortable sofas and wood-panelled pubs – and pulls off some stylish atmospherics for the Herne’s Oak scene.

Swedish conductor Marit Stridlund steers the Southbank Sinfonia through a deliciously full-blooded account of the score. There’s nothing fey about this musical pastoral; priapic horns offer obscene commentary on the fat knight’s seductions, tempered with some delicate woodwind solos – the coaxing oboe in Anne’s “Weep eyes, break heart”, the liquid flute in the Act IV Interlude. In the open set-up of Opera Holland Park, with its projected orchestra pit and wrap-around walkway, the volume is often overwhelming however. Young singers are washed away in the orchestral surge, too rarely invited to come forward to the edge of the apron.

Vaughan Williams’ 21-strong cast means that few characters make it much beyond cameos, but gives BYO’s young singers a natural showcase. Two casts (as well as a full set of covers) divide the run between them. On opening night we saw a poised Lexie Moon leading the scheming Windsor ladies as Alice Ford, mink around her shoulders and in her tone. Soprano Eva Gheorghiu (pictured with Moon, left) was her wholesome co-conspirator Meg, charming in her Herne the Hunter aria, with Nancy Holt a scene-stealing Mistress Quickly, giving Falstaff a run for his money in the comedy stakes.

Grace Marie Wyatt (Anne) and Steven van der Linden (Fenton) were a sweet-voiced pair of lovers (pictured above), their lyrical music (at its best in duet “Have you seen but the bright lilly grow?”) at odds with the halting, jerky seductions of Fenton’s rival Slender (James Mickelthwaite). Justin Jacobs leans hard into the French-accented comedy of Dr Caius with joyful results, his erratic energy the lighter foil to Jacob Bettinelli’s seething Ford.

But the evening belongs to Johannes Moore’s Falstaff (pictured, right). This is a baritone of serious power who already knows exactly what to do with his instrument. It’s a beautiful voice – glossy and even from top to bottom, a play of light and shade that’s carefully deployed along with a lovely sense of legato – and Moore uses it with real intelligence and musicality. His Falstaff (a bit short-changed in the belly department) is bluff and bonhomous rather than seedy, a gurning, waddling, preening mass of self-confidence whose pivot from gull to master-of-ceremonies in the final scene feels well-deserved. It’s a triumphant performance, and one that makes you hope that there’s a “Va, Vecchio John” in his future.

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