Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Falstaff, Commedia lyrica in three acts (1893)
Libretto by Arrigo Boito
Sir John Falstaff, Nicola Alaimo (bass-baritone); Ford, Simone Piazzola (baritone); Fenton, Matthew Swensen (tenor); Alice Ford, Aylin Pérez (soprano); Nanetta, Francesca Boncompagni (soprano); Meg Page, Caterina Piva (mezzo-soprano), Mistress Quickly, Sara Mingardo (contralto)
Orchestra and Chorus of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/John Eliot Gardiner
Director, Sven-Eric Bechtolf
rec. live, 23 November 2021, Teatro de Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Florence, Italy
DYNAMIC 57951 Blu-ray 
This recent staging of Verdi’s final opera Falstaff, which was produced last year in Florence, is one of the most consistently entertaining productions of the opera that I have viewed in many years. Stage director Sven-Eric Bechtolf has mercifully decided to leave any post-apocalyptic reimaginings of the Windsor townsfolk as homeless drug addicts on the Regietheater rubbish heap where such things belong. Instead what he offers the audience is a well crafted comedic romp in the traditional style. His direction of the actors tends to broader gestures rather than subtleties but Falstaff comes out no worse for it. A great deal of his stage action involves carefully choreographed dance moves which suit Verdi’s lightly tripping melodies to a T. Costumes are elegant 15th century recreations and the sets have a timbered sparseness which evokes the period of Shakespeare but never get in the way of the action.
As one might expect the star of this or any Falstaff is the title character himself. Nicola Alaimo assumes the role with gusto and splendid comedic gifts. It is an added bonus that he possesses the natural Physique-du- rôle that singers such as Juan Pons and Angelo Maestri have brought to the table at the Garter Inn. Simply put, no amount of costume padding can make a totally believable decaying knight. Mr Alaimo glories in the stage action devised for him and he delivers the choreographed parts like a person who has received dance instruction at some point in his life. Vocally he shows himself to be a gifted singer who is at the peak of his vocal powers. During the Honour monologue he delivers a series of memorable inflections which present a lifelike character in purely vocal terms.
The Windsor wives are a crackerjack team on the whole. This is the first production I have seen where all of the female leads happen to have strikingly beautiful faces, including Mistress Quickly. Aylin Pérez made a stunning debut on DVD with Erato’s release of Jake Heggie’s opera Great Scott. There her performance of the voracious Russian diva, Tatyana Bakst, was so memorable that it nearly stole the opera away from the rest of the cast with her insanely funny rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Since then I have been impatiently waiting for her to show up on a commercial DVD again, her appearance on this Falstaff does not disappoint. Pérez has everything that a lyric soprano requires including a voice of strikingly dappled hues and a memorable stage presence. Her winsome, good-humoured Alice is quite possibly the finest on any commercial video release that I can recall.
Sara Mingardo’s Quickly is the lone surviving cast member from Sir John Eliot Gardiner‘s 2001 Philips recording. Now 20 years later she is in even better form than she was on that CD, helped enormously by the ability to see her visual underlining of Boito’s text. The entire scene of the “Reverenza” interview with Sir John is a frolic of inventive stage business which both Mingardo and Alaimo execute with poise and wit.
The singers cast as the two lovers are not quite on the same level as the other singers. Matthew Swensen shows a very promising lyric tenor as Fenton. His attractive plangent tone fits the bill in a role which is a good one for him at this early stage in his career. With a little more polish as an actor he will be someone to watch in the near future. Francesca Boncompagni has to be one of the prettiest and most youthfully convincing Nanetta’s I have ever come across. Her voice has a slender delicate tone and while she manages the majority her music quite well, she occasionally indulges in the Baroque performance practice of draining her voice entirely of its natural colour which turns her sound into an unpleasant hooting and should be avoided at all costs.
Simone Piazzola has a fine, youthfully firm baritone as Master Ford, and he is certainly shown to advantage in the Jealousy monologue; but for a lesson in vocal style and characterization, one has to turn to Rolando Panerai’s overwhelming interpretation on the Sony DVD from Salzburg.
Among the smaller roles, Caterina Piva’s Meg is well acted and she possesses a lovely creamy sounding mezzo that makes Mistress Page far less anonymous than she often is. Also commanding attention is Gianlucca Burratta’s firm and sonorously vocalized Pistol.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner returns to a piece that he set down on CD 20 years ago for Philips. On that set he brought a leisurely manner and a great lightness and clarity to Verdi’s orchestration. His reading of the work has remained fairly consistent although I detect some slower tempi in the more difficult ensembles. Likely this was more to do with maintaining the clarity of the ensemble in a live performance than any change in his approach to the opera. The Maggio Musicale orchestra and chorus give fine support, a fact that is drawn attention to by the excellent sound engineering on this Blu-ray. Video direction and picture detail really capture the full scope of this charmingly funny production. Among other versions on video there are some admirable things in Herbert von Karajan’s Salzburg DVD on Sony (review) and then there is the wonderful Franco Zeffirelli production from the Metropolitan Opera on DG. While both of those older releases have much to admire, one must admit they also come equipped with the occasional disappointment. This new Blu-ray from Dynamic now becomes my top recommendation for a Falstaff video despite any minor quibbles I have in regards to some of the singers.
Previous review (DVD): Stephen Barber
Other cast and production staff
Dr Caius, Christian Collia (tenor)
Bardolfo, Antonio Garés (tenor)
Pistola, Gianluca Buratto (bass)
Chorus Master, Lorenzo Fratini
Set designer, Julian Crouch
Costume designer, Kevin Pollard,
Light designer, Alex Brok
Video director, Tiziano Mancini
Video designer, Josh Higgason
Region code – all regions
Picture format: 16:9;
Sound format DTS Master Audio 5.1/ PCM stereo 2.0
Sung in Italian; subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Japanese, Korean
Booklet notes; Italian, English