Opera Scotland

Falstaff 1928British National Opera Company

Read more about the opera Falstaff

Falstaff was still a rarity in Britain during the twenties,  but BNOC seems to have managed to assemble a suitable team, and Aberdeen was treated to the company's first performance of the work.  Even what is arguably the least showy role, Meg Page, is sung by the company's regular Brünnhilde and Kundry - taking on any part in this delightful comedy must have made a refreshing change, though she had sung it with the Beecham company.   And even in his youth, Sir John Barbirolli must have been a wonderfully idiomatic conductor of this effervescent masterpiece.

Cast details are taken from press reviews in the Aberdeen  Press and Journal of 20 October, and the Scotsman of 27 October,  as well as programmes in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow and Edinburgh City Library.


The View from Aberdeen

The critic from the Aberdeen Press and Journal, on Saturday, 20 October (p6) was given lots of space:

'Interest in the week of opera at Aberdeen,  hitherto somewhat lackadaisical,  rose last night to full pitch.  For the first time during the visit His Majesty's Theatre was completely filled.  The attraction was the first performance by the British National Opera Company of Verdi's Falstaff.  The new opera took its place in the repertory with every mark of favour.  The performance was followed all the way by applause,  with many curtain calls for the artistes.

'Falstaff,  as mostly everyone knows,  is the opera of Verdi's old age.  The story, compiled by Boito from The Merry Wives of Windsor, and certain passages of Henry the Fourth,  was outlined in these columns a few days ago.  The circumstances surrounding the creation of Falstaff are without parallel in the annals of music.  One listens to the opera with amazement - at its extraordinary virility,  its constant stream of beautiful melody,  and the revolution, or rather radical development in the composer's methods which took place after he had reachedan age when most men are set and unchangeable.  That the development owes something to Wagner does not diminish the honour that is due to Verdi.  For, after all,  he did not imitate Wagner;  he learnt from him without surrendering his own individuality.

'He does not,  like Wagner,  let the action stand still while he unravels for us the psychology of his characters - to say nothing of their metaphysical opinions.  With Verdi the text and the music march together.  Brief phrases become extraordinarily significant,  and,  again and again, attention is caught by the remarkable tenseness and yet complete expressiveness of the orchestral commentary upon the incident or situation of the moment.

'Some of the credit must go to Boito, who has constructed a book perfectly stageworthy and free from the usual absurdities.  In working from two plays he has joined his flats with amazing skill.  The transfer of Dame Quickly from Eastcheap to Windsor is a dramatic libberty which may be pardoned for the sake of the fun which that notable lady creates in aiding and abetting the merry wives.

'The music of Falstaff is in the real tone of musical comedy - often it is not more serious than the sparkling parts of Sullivan's operas.  It is a marvel of freshness and spontaneity,  and the pace is tremendous.  To set Shakespeare's rapid dialogue to music in such a way that it never has time,  so to speak, to cool in delivery, was surely one of the greatest feats of Verdi's long and active life.  And to end a comedy with a fugue is another.

'Last night's production, although not quite up to the British National Opera Company's own ideal,  was still a credit to Mr King, the company's producer.  In its interpretation, Mr Barbirolli has found something exactly suited to his gifts.  The playing was the fine feature of the performance,  and a sufficient delight to any listener.  It has vivacity,  lightness and a fibe precision.  The vocal features are less favourable.  The conversational ensemble is exceedingly intricate, and although much useful work has been done to reduce the text to due quantity and lightness, much yet remains.  The singers, especially the women, are finer individually than collectively.

'If Mr Arthur Fear is not yet the complete Falstaff, it is perhaps because his musical interpretation of the part is so sterling and so arresting.  He sings without stress and with a strength that has in it both freedom and lightness of heart.  Something of Falstaff's expansive jollity,  his cakes-and-ale spirit Mr Fear has yet to acquire.  He is yet a trifle serious and laughs but seldom,  his jokes have not yet the full Falstaffian gusto.

'Mr Percy Heming is very much in earnest, perhaps a trifle too serious in the part of Ford,  that is the Ford of the first and second acts.  He becomes jovial enough when he joins the comic conspirators of the third act.  The Fenton of Mr Heddle Nash and the Dr caius of Mr Sydney Russell are effective impersonations, and Mr Frederick Davies and Mr Bernard Ross are richly humorous as Bardolph and Pistol respectively.

'The chatter of the womankind is still a little bit intermittent.  Falstaff's letter is read with both eyes on the conductor,  and the quartet in the garden is a trifle laboured and inarticulate.  The Mistress Ford of Miss Agnes Nicholls is very voluble,  very humorous,  very entertaining,  but somewhat less satisfactory on the musical side.  Miss Gladys Ancrum's comedy is infective,  her laughter has the true ring, and her Mistress Page is a merry and charming lady.

'Miss Constance Willis scored yet another triumph in the part of Dame Quickly.  She exhibited unsuspected powers of comedy,  and realised also the humorous intention that frequently lurks in the music.  Miss Doris Lemon was competent enough as 'sweet Anne Page,'' but the part affords little scope.  The beauty of the scenery and of the dresses was a feature - the final scene under Herne's oak was an exquisite picture.'


The Edinburgh notice

This Edinburgh critic seems unaware of the first Scottish performances of the work, some fifteen years earlier than the Beecham ones he mentions.  The performance was reviewed in the Scotsman of Saturday,  27 October (p11),  and seems to have settled down since the first night in Aberdeen:

'When the fortunes of opera are so precarious,  it is doubly a boon to be afforded an opportunity of renewing acquaintance,  under most excellent conditions,  with one of its greatest achievements.  By producing Verdi's Falstaff in the style in which it was given at the King's Theatre last night,  the directors of the British National Opera Company placed the music-loving public under a great obligation.  Incidentally, the performance might be regarded as a valuable piece of propaganda.  If existing British operatic resources admit of such fine work as that of last night being done,  it is surely obvious that the continuance of such work  is well worth the effort of the public necessary to place Opera on a footing of security.  The effort required is not so very great.  There is already a fairly substantial public for Opera - last night's crowded audience at the King's was proof of the fact.  What is needed is a more active interest on the part of the public,  already prepared to enjoy Opera when it is within reach,  but not yet sufficiently alive to the fact that it is only by continuous support that Opera can be kept alive.

'Verdi's Falstaff,  which was first heard here in Edinburgh nine years ago,  under Sir Thomas Beecham,  and has not been revived here since the two performances given on that occasion, is the product of a marvellous old age,  It is almost unbelievable that Verdi was eighty when he broke six years' silence which he had preservrd since the production of Othello,  which itself had been a startling reminder that the composer, who had apparently taken his farewell at this theatre, in 1871,  with Aïda,  was still an active creative force.  From the opening scene, to the extraordinary final fugue, the opera is instinct with youthful high spirits and pleasant sentiment.  Wagner, in the opera of his old age, has sailed into a mystical calm.  For the octogenarian Verdi,  there are still cakes and ale,  and ginger hot i' the mouth.

'Last night's performance included at least three of the artists who were in those given by Sir Thomas Beecham nine years ago.  Dame Agnes Nicholls, returning to the stage after a long absence, as Mrs Ford,  Miss Gladys Ancrum as Mrs Page and Mr Sydney Russell as Dr Caius.  The Falstaff of Mr Arthur Fear,  his first appearance with the company in Edinburgh, if recollection serves aright, was a wholly admirable study.  He has the invaluable faculty of singing buffo music,  while still retaining a completely musical quality of tone.  There was a rich humour in his impersonation,  but the singing was always beautiful.  Dame Agnes Nicholls, as Mrs Ford, displayed her well remembered powers of comedy,  while her lower register retained its old charm.

'Miss Ancrum made a fine dashing Mrs Page,  while the Dame Quickly of Miss Constance Willis was irresistibly droll.  She is a born comedian.  Who that saw her extraordinary Doll Tearsheet, in At the Boar's Head, is likely to have forgotten it?  The Mr Ford of Mr Percy Heming was a fine performance;  an admirable pair of young lovers were provided in the Anne ofMiss Doris Lemon,  and Fenton of Mr Heddle Nash,  delightful performances,  both of them,  and the Bardolph and Pistol of  Messrs Frederick Davies and Bernard Ross provided an admirable pair of rogues.

'Falstaff abounds in complicated ensembles,  and for the point and vivacity with which these were given last night,  there can be nothing but very high praise.  The orchestra was in particularly good form,  and under the direction of Mr John Barbirolli,  the opera as a whole was given with a sense of exhilaration which quickly communicated itself to the audience.  The staging of the opera was beautiful,  and altogether the performance was a triumph for the British National Opera artists.'


BNOC in Scotland 1928

This final Scottish tour by BNOC was only four weeks instead of the six enjoyed the previous year.  This is partly because the King's Theatre in Dundee, an excellent modern venue, visited for the first time in 1927,  was now a cinema and no longer available.  But Aberdeen (His Majesty's) was still a welcoming venue along with Edinburgh (King's) and Glasgow (Theatre Royal).

The fifteen operas performed were:

Mozart (Magic Flute);  Rossini (Barber of Seville);  Wagner (TannhäuserLohengrinMastersingers);  Verdi (Trovatore, Aïda, Falstaff);  Gounod (Faust);  Bizet (Carmen);  Massenet (Manon);  Puccini (BohèmeMadam Butterfly);  Leoncavallo (Pagliacci);  Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana).

The tour schedule was as follows:

Aberdeen, w/c 15 October:  Mon 15  Lohengrin;  Tue 16  Carmen;  Wed 17 mat  Tannhäuser;  Wed 17 eve  Madam Butterfly;  Thu 18  Aïda;  Fri 19  Falstaff;  Sat 20 mat  Bohème;  Sat 20 eve  Cav & Pag.

Edinburgh, w/c 22 October:  Mon 22  Manon;  Tue 23  Lohengrin;  Wed 24 mat  Faust;  Wed 24 eve  Barber of Seville;  Thu 25  Magic Flute;  Fri 26  Falstaff;  Sat 27 mat  Carmen;  Sat 27 eve Madam Butterfly.

Glasgow, w/c 29 October:  Mon 29  Lohengrin;  Tue 30  Tannhäuser;  Wed 31 mat  Faust;  Wed 31 eve  Barber of Seville;  Thu 01 Nov  Falstaff;  Fri 02  Manon;  Sat 03 mat Carmen;  Sat 03 eve  Bohème.

Glasgow, w/c 05 November:  Mon 05  Falstaff;  Tue 06  Magic Flute;  Wed 07 mat  Trovatore;  Wed 07 eve  Lohengrin;  Thu 08  Aïda;  Fri 09  Mastersingers;  Sat 10 mat  Manon;  Sat 10 eve  Madam Butterfly.  

Performance Cast

Sir John Falstaff a knight

Arthur Fear (Oct 19, 26; Nov 01)

Pistola Pistol, a follower of Falstaff

Bernard Ross (Oct 19, 26; Nov 01)

Bardolfo Bardolph, a follower of Falstaff

Frederick Davies (Oct 19, 26; Nov 01)

Caius Dr Caius, a Frenchman

Sydney Russell Oct 19, 26; Nov 01)

Meg Mistress Page

Gladys Ancrum (Oct 19, 26; Nov 01)

Alice Mistress Alice Ford, wife of Ford

Agnes Nicholls (Oct 19, 26)

Marjorie Parry (Nov 01)

Nannetta daughter of the Fords

Doris Lemon (Oct 19, 26; Nov 01)

Quickly Mistress Quickly, a confidante of Alice and Meg

Constance Willis (Oct 19, 26; Nov 01)

Ford a merchant of Windsor

Percy Heming (Oct 19, 26; Nov 01)

Fenton a young gentleman

Heddle Nash (Oct 19, 26; Nov 01)

Robin Falstaff's page

Barbara Nelson

Performance DatesFalstaff 1928

Map List

His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen | Aberdeen

19 Oct, 19.30

King's Theatre, Edinburgh | Edinburgh

26 Oct, 19.30

Theatre Royal, Glasgow | Glasgow

1 Nov, 19.30 5 Nov, 19.30

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