REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in Falstaff, Leeds Grand Theatre

Henry Waddington as Falstaff and Louise Winter as Mistress Quickly in Opera North’s Falstaff. All pictures: Richard H Smith

IT is exactly 400 years since the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s complete works, which included The Merry Wives Of Windsor. Sir John Falstaff is its principal character, but his name does not appear in the title.

Olivia Fuchs must surely have noticed this in her new production of Verdi’s comedy, which deservedly gives plentiful attention to the wives.

Here it is the opening salvo in Opera North’s Green Season, in which its three productions are sharing scenic elements, with all sets and costumes sourced from current stock and previous productions or bought second-hand.

Kate Royal as Alice Ford, Louise Winter as Mistress Quickly, Helen Évora as Meg Page and Isabelle Peters as Nannetta

Principal among the purchases is a weathered, open-sided 1970s caravan, which serves as Falstaff’s HQ for his intrigues against the bourgeois ladies of Windsor. Down on his uppers and sporting braces and shorts over his sweaty T-shirt, he is the epitome of trailer trash. Thus the need for period costumes is neatly side-stepped, while bringing the whole comedy much nearer home: surely a victory for both ecology and economy.

But the engine-room of this sparkling evening is Garry Walker’s orchestra. Anyone who can wrest their attention away from the hi-jinks on stage will find it hard to keep a smile off their face at what is going on in the pit.

If there is more stress on the first word of commedia lirica than on the second, it is entirely in keeping with Fuchs’s vision. For humour underlies Walker’s every gesture. It is not just that his orchestra is light on its toes, it is attuned to the finest detail of Verdi’s orchestration: the dancing woodwinds, the taut trills, the caustic brass, all are calculated to enhance the text, in this case Amanda Holden’s wise and witty translation, also seen in side-titles.

Colin Judson as Bardolph, Paul Nilon as Dr Caius, Dean Robinson as Pistol, Richard Burkhard as Ford and Egor Zhuravskii as Fenton

The moment that encapsulates every aspect of the show is when Falstaff breaks into a gleeful caper on exclaiming “Alice is mine!”. Here laughter, choreography, song, orchestra are one, a magical moment.

Rarely have instruments sounded so comical, as Verdi – letting his hair down in his 80th year – throws caution to the winds. Walker deserves gratitude for reminding us of this so vividly, and with immaculate pacing into the bargain.

While we laugh at this Falstaff, we never lose sympathy for him. As he lumbers out with his ghetto blaster in Act 2, preparing for conquest, or wanders expectantly into the wood in Act 3, Henry Waddington’s corpulent blunderer is never an object of mere derision.  So that when he changes his tune at the finale and joins in the general rejoicing, it rings true – as if we have been watching a play within a play.

Tennis courting: Egor Zhuravskii as Fenton and Isabelle Peters as Nannetta

Waddington’s baritone is in excellent trim, relishing the arioso nuances of the role with exemplary diction. He has made many memorable appearances with this company, but this is surely his finest hour in Leeds.

He is admirably matched by Kate Royal’s Mistress Alice, not least through her comic timing in dialogue. But her soprano is wonderfully flexible too. As her husband Ford, James Davies stepped out of the chorus on this occasion to replace the indisposed Richard Burkhard and did so with distinction. He warmed into the role smoothly and resonantly, as if he had always been part of the front line – and deserved the cast applause at the final curtain.

There is no lack of quality in the lesser roles. Helen Évora’s charm ensures she makes the most of Mistress Meg and Louise Winter’s seen-it-all-before Mistress Quickly is a perfect piece of casting.

Kate Royal as Alice Ford and Henry Waddington as Falstaff

As the only “serious” lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, Isabelle Peters and Egor Zhuravskii are well blended, she flighty and innocent, he eager in his high tessitura, reminiscent indeed of Paul Nilon in his younger days – who here brings a cutting edge to Doctor Caius. Colin Judson and Dean Robinson offer a neat combination of bafflement and bravado as Bardolph and Pistol. The chorus is as disciplined as ever.

It is hard to judge just how green this production is. Suffice to say that the ‘tree’ of real antlers in Act 3, shed naturally by the herd at Harewood House, is an impressive assemblage. Nature will provide. But it is a tribute not only to Fuchs, but also to Leslie Travers’ set and Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes that the evening coheres so beautifully despite the environmental economies. Green is not necessarily mean.

Further performances in Leeds until October 25, then on tour until November 18. Leeds box office: 0113 243 0808 or

Review by Martin Dreyer, October 5

Richard Burkhard as Ford, Henry Waddington as Falstaff and Kate Royal as Alice Ford with members of the Chorus of Opera North and a ‘tree’ of antlers, shed naturally by the Harewood House deer herd

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Royal, Rice & Drake/Keenlyside & Middleton

Soprano Kate Royal. Picture: Jason Joyce

Leeds Lieder Festival 2023: Royal, Rice & Drake/Keenlyside & Middleton, The Venue, Leeds Conservatoire, June 15 and 17

KATE Royal’s soprano and Christine Rice’s mezzo blended happily in their recital with Julius Drake, who bounced straight into Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder Op 103, setting a jovial tone.

These gypsy songs were so popular when first published as vocal quartets in autumn 1888 that Brahms reissued eight of them for solo voice the following spring. These latter made a delightful start to the evening.

Four genuine duets followed. As two sisters, identical in their tastes, they giggled along – until realising that they loved the same man. Cue pouting dissent and a piano lament. Die Meere, translated from the Italian, was a gently rocking barcarole, with another evocative minor-key piano postlude as the little boat sank.

Goethe’s Phänomen, describing the effect of a rainbow, was gently consoling, while mother (Rice) and daughter (Royal) enjoyed their enigmatic dialogue in Walpurgisnacht.

Two quieter duets concluding four by Schumann made a strong impression. The heat-haze of Sommerruh, the voices taking their cue from Drake’s delicate introduction, came to a lovely, peaceful conclusion.

In the same vein, In der Nacht (originally for soprano and tenor), with love’s power banishing sleep, was deeply elegiac, conjuring the romance between Schumann and his eventual wife, Clara.

A concluding group of Weill songs, split between the singers, was altogether more light-hearted – but with genuine emotion. Rice’s rueful Nanna, thrown onto the love market at 17, and the Cocteau song Es Regnet (Weeping Together) followed her multi-coloured description of Berlin’s illuminations.

Royal’s tango-based Youkali, drifting into oblivion, and her cabaret lilt in Buddy On The Night Shift were topped by the slowly ironic Je Ne T’aime Pas, building to an impassioned climax, the title line shouted defiantly.

Alabama Song, from Mahagonny – a Lotte Lenya original that caused a riot at its premiere – allowed the pair to alternate as a drunken prostitute with equal measures of wit and pathos. All evening the group was truly a trio, so smoothly integrated was Drake’s piano into the ensemble.

For its closing gala, the festival was able to substitute one titled singer with another. Dame Sarah Connolly was indisposed, but Sir Simon Keenlyside stepped in with Schubert’s Winterreise, no less. With Joseph Middleton in support, he offered a painful journey through the snow and ice, voiced in excellent German. The text could not have emerged more clearly.

But there were distractions along the way, not least that Keenlyside himself seemed distracted. From the start he was fidgety, rarely maintaining a posture more than a second or two and pacing about nervously.

Perhaps this was a deliberate part of the act; it was impossible to be sure. But with his downward gaze, which he raised only to sight the crow or the phantom suns, he rarely made eye contact with his audience. This made our task the harder: the cycle must surely tell a tale and listeners need to be engaged.

None of this affected the quality of his tone, which was superbly varied; his baritone is a flexible instrument indeed. His disconsolate opening was well-judged, reaching a peak in a firmer third stanza. It slightly came undone when Middleton made a rare miscue, understating the change to the major key for the consoling last verse, the vital third of the chord being virtually inaudible.

Elsewhere he was with Keenlyside every step of the way. Together they conjured fake respite in the middle of Erstarrung (Numbness) and covered their tone while lamenting their distance from the linden tree.

We felt the warmth of the thaw in Wasserflut (Flood), and after the slow plod along the river (Auf dem Flusse), the piano’s taut chords boiled into the singer’s anger in the final verse. It was truly a duo.

Frühlingstraum (Dream Of Springtime) abounded in contrasts: the imagined flowers in bloom against the privations of winter, all culminating in a pianissimo ending, quite without vibrato, desolation personified. It was not all bleakness. There was the joy of anticipation in hearing the postman’s horn and the bleak friendship with the crow.

The travellers’ gradual derangement was aptly symbolised with much rubato in Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope), with calm achieved only in the final major chord on Grab (Grave). Piano and voice mirrored one another in Täuschung (Delusion), as they had during the stormy morning.

There was tangible irony in the graveyard ‘inn’ with a martial tempo in Mut (Courage) to follow. The phantom suns brought on deep despair and the organ-grinder marked the end of the traveller’s life-road, again completely without vibrato in the voice.

As a picture of mental breakdown, this was about as harrowing as it gets. Perhaps, in retrospect, the mental break-up should not have been quite so evident in the earlier part of the cycle. But the duo offered plenty of food for thought, for which we may be grateful.

Review by Martin Dreyer