“Bloody Hell. That was stonking”. So opined my opera newbie guest, daughter Jane, as the British Youth Opera (BYO) ensemble and Southbank Sinfonia blasted the closing bars of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love. If you can shake a tent, they shook the tent. Well, it quivered.
As a critique “stonking” was concise, accurate and colourful. Couldn’t have put it better myself. The Holland Park Opera audience melted into the night, Vaughan Williams’ English pastoral themes coursing through their veins. That is a galliard, I declare, as an elderly man in a straw hat skips out of Ilchester Gate en route to the 28 bus to Peckham.
BYO sent its audience home on Cloud 9, strains of Greensleeves ringing in their ears. Right, royally entertained by what must never again be called the poor relation of Verdi’s Falstaff. Sir John in Love is a totally different opera, stands tall, deserving of a more regular slot in the repertoire. Let’s stop talking it down.
For starters, Verdi’s last hurrah masterpiece comedy, Fallstaff, isn’t pure Shakespeare at all. His librettist, Boito, cleverly mashed up The Merry Wives of Windsor with serious bits from Henry IV to add heft to the Falstaff character. And wrote his own libretto.
Sure, drawing the while on Shakespeare’s dramas, but in language very much Boito’s own. Vaughan Williams’ second opera is more firmly rooted in the original and uses Shakespeare’s language more or less faithfully. Lots of bodkins around.
In the early 20th century Ralph Vaughan Williams collected around 800 folk songs from across England. He loathed the fashion for modern drawing room ballads, then hugely popular. They oozed schmaltz as Maude went down into her garden, or not as the mood took her. The composer, not to be left at the gate alone, was determined to put the music and sound world of the English people at the heart of his work.
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Consequently, most of the folk tunes that feature in the opera are largely unadorned. “The tune’s the thing, and each time we dramatise a folk song we must necessarily do violence to the tune,” opined Vaughan Williams. This was a break from the European musical tradition and an assertion of an unadorned English voice.
That voice was reasserted when Benjamin Britten took on from where Vaughan Williams left off, with the likes of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd.
The plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor is well known and available here for a quick refresher course. I shall assume familiarity.
To make this opera the comedic romp intended requires a prodigious cast. Any weak links would destroy the often-subtle humour and blister quick interactions that were taking place across the wide Holland Park stage.
For example, the ultra-French Dr Caius, intent on punching everyone’s lights out, was sung by tenor Justin Jacobs, who posed as a sort of feisty Macron on a pugilistic mission. Jacobs’ first BYO appearance was a huge success. All secondary characters were sung and acted with huge attention to production detail.
Johannes Moore, baritone, was Falstaff. Conniving, pompous, pathetic and eventually outwitted, he sang effortlessly and frequently came front stage on a runway which brought him into close scrutiny range. His fat suit was very convincing.
Another standout was Lexie Moon, another BYO newcomer, a mezzo-soprano singing Alice Ford. She had mastered the role of vamp, misunderstood wife, and playful conspirator to perfection. Each gesture and confiding glance drew laughter from the audience as “lover” Sir John was conned into hiding in his laundry basket almost in front of her husband, Ford, and consigned to a muddy Thames.
There was not a weak voice on display, a huge compliment to BYO. They also accommodated many cast changes over the three-night run, giving the stage to as many of their members as possible.
BYO has a new chief executive, Anna Patalong. In the group’s 35-year history it has incubated a huge range of singing and production talent — stage management, directors and conductors. The workshop in Wandsworth is not just for singers and musicians. It covers the entire opera territory. I met her at an interval gathering and she positively bubbles about her job. She has been at the sharp end, singing soprano roles in 2007, 2008 and 2010.
Why a Shakespeare-themed production? She admires his ability to build theatres as well as his writing skills. “Shakespeare resounds long after his plays finish”. She is on a mission to make the same point. All her talent pool is at a career embarkation point. “We are such stuff as dreams are made of”. Blimey! Patalong has drunk deep of the Shakespeare Kool-aid. She buzzes with excitement.
The Holland Park auditorium is a hoot. I haven’t made it there for about five years. I remember bum-numbing benches. Banished! I was astonished to find it kitted out in comfy, individual seats, apparently raided from junk stores in nearby Portobello Road. All were different, numbered by discreet, brown card, hanging labels, ranging from Victorian armchairs to cosy contemporary. I had a small table next to mine on which to rest a programme and a bottle of water.
Time to relax and enjoy the sound of the Southbank Sinfonia, BYO’s resident orchestra, now with a home at St John’s Smith Square. They interpreted the lush song scape of Vaughan Williams beautifully. Marit Strindlund, a Swedish conductor, kept them in good order.
She struck me as perhaps lacking a dramatic, whimsical touch. I would have welcomed some more obvious engagement. She seemed to be going through the motions professionally, but not matching the zest unfolding in front of her onstage.
BYO may take on the Holland Park stage at the end of a season, but in no way was this a second-best run-out production to use the space. Those final minutes of ensemble, Vaughan Williams at his compelling full pelt best are a harbinger of great things to come again in 2023. It was, indeed, “stonking”.