Vaughan Williams Sir John in Love

A welcome new recording of RVW’s lovable but still underestimated portrait of Falstaff

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Vaughan Williams Sir John in Love

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Sir John in Love

  • Sir John in Love

With characteristic frankness and a touch of self­mockery‚ Vaughan Williams in his introduction to the score of Sir John in Love‚ says‚ ‘To write yet another opera about Falstaff at this time of day may seem the height of impertinence‚ for one appears in so doing to be entering into competition with four great men – Shakespeare‚ Verdi‚ Nicolai and Holst.’
At least in relation to Shakespeare he comes nearer to the Bard’s example in The Merry Wives of Windsor than any of his operatic rivals‚ relying entirely on Shakespeare’s text‚ but adding some 18 settings of Elizabethan lyrics‚ including Shakespeare’s When daisies pied and Sigh no more‚ ladies. In no way does he try to outshine Verdi and Boito in their masterly‚ more radical recreation of this same story. He even confessed disappointment with the Verdi‚ preferring the Nicolai version‚ when‚ as he felt‚ Falstaff has one expecting rich Verdian melodies which never emerge. At least there is no lack of glorious melody in Sir John in Love‚ and not just folksong cunningly interwoven. When daisies pied‚ for example‚ with its cries of ‘cuckoo’‚ links directly to Ford’s bitter cries of ‘Cuckold’ in Act 2‚ when he thinks his wife has been unfaithful.
Vaughan Williams himself anticipated the accusation that this is just a collection of folksongs by pointing out that they involve barely 15 minutes out of well over two hours of music‚ but that of course includes the setting of Greensleeves‚ first given to Mrs Ford as a lute song‚ later as an interlude‚ which led to the ever­popular Greensleeves Fantasia based on material from the opera‚ a hit tune that any opera composer would cherish.
Musically‚ what comes over strongly‚ more richly than ever before in this magnificent new recording from Richard Hickox‚ is the way that the writing anticipates later Vaughan Williams‚ not just the radiant composer of the Fifth Symphony and Serenade to Music‚ with key­changes of heartstopping beauty‚ but the composer’s darker side‚ with sharply rhythmic writing. So the Fairies’ Dance in Act 3 in its rumbustious way anticipated the scherzos of the late symphonies.
In stagecraft Vaughan Williams cannot of course match Verdi and Boito‚ but his more easy­going libretto‚ in staying closer to Shakespeare‚ brings in extra characters like Shallow‚ Peter Simple and the Welsh parson‚ Sir Hugh Evans‚ whose accent is unashamedly guyed. Similarly the Frenchness of Dr Caius is mocked for his broken English. Caius is superbly characterised here by Adrian Thompson‚ who also in nicely contrasted tones takes the brief role of Justice Shallow in the opening scene.
The characters of Anne Page and of Fenton are more fully drawn too than in Verdi (where thanks to Boito Nannetta switches family to become a Ford)‚ inspiring some of the loveliest music in the whole opera‚ notably in the Act 1 love duet‚ with Susan Gritton in golden voice as Anne and Mark Padmore fresh and youthful as Fenton.
As for Falstaff himself‚ the work’s title‚ Sir John in Love‚ points to Vaughan Williams’s different approach to his central character. With him Shakespeare’s fat knight is not just comic but a believable lover‚ more genial and expansive than in Boito’s portrait‚ yet hardly a noble figure such as Elgar portrayed in his big symphonic study. Donald Maxwell makes a splendid Falstaff‚ relishing the comedy without making it a caricature. Above all‚ his full‚ dark voice is satisfyingly fat­sounding. On the only previous recording‚ the vintage EMI set of 1974‚ Raimund Herincx gave a finely detailed performance‚ but lacked that important fat­sounding quality.
The 1974 set certainly stands the test of time remarkably well‚ but the extra fullness and richness of the Chandos sound coupled with as keen a concern for the atmospheric beauties of the score‚ notably in offstage effects‚ gives the new set an obvious advantage. Interpretatively‚ Hickox is just as incisive as Meredith Davies on EMI in bringing out the sharper side of the score‚ but‚ most important‚ she is more warmly expressive‚ consistently a degree more affectionate in drawing out the glowing lyricism.
As on the EMI set the casting is satisfyingly consistent over the wide range of the characters‚ with no weak link. Matthew Best may be rather gruff at times as Ford‚ but that is very much in character when‚ if anything‚ he is more venomous here than in Verdi‚ until at the start of Act 3 Vaughan Williams allows a wonderful duet of reconciliation with Mrs Ford‚ ‘Pardon me‚ wife’. At first I was slightly disappointed at the casting of the two wives‚ neither as characterful as their EMI predecessors‚ Felicity Palmer and Elizabeth Bainbridge‚ but there is certainly a case for having younger voices‚ fresh and clear‚ used to superb effect by‚ respectively‚ Sarah Connolly as Mrs Ford and Laura Claycomb as Mrs Page‚ neither at all matronly. Anne­Marie Owens as Mrs Quickly is‚ by contrast‚ rather more matronly‚ vocally less secure than Helen Watts on EMI; but Quickly is a far more devious character here than in Verdi‚ and Owens reflects that.
As before‚ the lovely 11­minute choral interlude has been included at the start of Act 3‚ a glorious passage‚ and this time‚ unlike last‚ includes the Episode which the composer also added. It may last just under two­and­a­half minutes (CD1‚ track 6)‚ but it makes a very welcome bonus‚ a delightful choral passage‚ against which Nym‚ Pistol and Bardolph unsuccessfully try to pick the pockets of the singing gentry. It certainly tips the balance in favour of the new set.
As Ursula Vaughan Williams has reported‚ her husband wrote Sir John in Love ‘entirely for his own enjoyment’‚ because he was in love with the subject. From first to last this new set reflects that. I only hope that before long it can be followed by a first recording of the Vaughan Williams opera still unrecorded‚ the flawed but inspired Poisoned Kiss.

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