Falstaff English National Opera at the London Coliseum

If proof were needed that the ENO is unique as far as the operatic make-up of this country is concerned, then Saturday s exhilirating first night of Verdi s masterpiece was it. Falstaff more than demonstrates why ENO must remain as it is.

At the close of this magnificent performance, artistic director Paul Daniel took to the stage to appeal for support of ENO s vehement rejection of Culture Secretary Chris Smith s plans to house the Royal Opera, ENO, and the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. The roar of audience approval for his words said it all.

What a joy then on Saturday night to be part of a capacity audience, listening to the text as opposed to reading it, and responding accordingly to its humour. The diction of the hand-picked Falstaff cast was perfect - Amanda Holden s translation as loyal to Boito as possible - thus achieving instant communication between cast and audience. The more I consider the benefits of performances in the vernacular, the more convinced I am that this is the only way to do it. It is a while since I ve enjoyed a first night so much; everything came together immediately, and the energy and commitment of all involved was a joy.

Matthew Warchus has a cast without a weak link and he directs them deftly to ensure that the comedy comes from within (i.e. text and character) rather than superfluous funny gags. Alan Opie in the title role scores a heart-warming success as his first Falstaff. Associated with this house for more than 20 years, Opie is a favourite here and rightly received the largest ovation of the night. Rita Cullis is superb as Alice, with a quick wit and a voluminous voice wielded expressively throughout. Catherine Wyn-Rogers had no need to resort to caricature in portraying Mistress Quickly - as many before her have done. Indeed, in this role, Wyn-Rogers confirms her position as one of the finest mezzos at work on the lyric stage. Finally, Charles Workman and Mary Plazas are an exquisite pair of young lovers, whilst Keith Latham as Ford adds another fine Verdi role to his repertoire.

The orchestra responded with some of the finest playing this season, with Oliver von Dohnanyi in the pit relishing all the nuances of this outstanding score. Ingenuity carries through to Laura Hopkins designs as well which manage to attain a remarkable sense of intimacy in the first two acts. It s only later in the opera that the Coliseum s huge stage is used to the full.

This production first opened in Leeds last season. I didn t see it but the critical appraisal was muted. My only gripe is that the final scene in the wood is played in winter - snow falls on the cast during the final fugue. This wintry setting doesn t feel right.Falstaff invokes warm autumnal rusts and golds to me; it was after all Verdi s final opera. But this is only one minor irritation in what is, all in all, a great night. Long may the ENO continue to stage such wonderful productions.

Falstaff runs at the Coliseum until 3 December before returning in June with a new cast.

Keith McDonnell, November 1997