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DVD Review


RSO Stuttgart/Ostmann with John deCarlo as Falstaff
ARTHUS 100 022 [120 mins]

There have been several earlier operas based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives  of Windsor, eclipsed by Verdi's late masterpiece. Salieri's (1799) is a concise two act Italian opera buffa taking 2 hours to humiliate Falstaff thrice to general merriment. There are two complete performances on CD (Hungaroton & Chandos) neither of which I have heard, but this is a piece which, whilst falling short of masterpiece status, is well worth attention and demands to be Seen as well as Heard.

Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) was a thoroughly competent professional composer, despite his unfortunate fictitious reputation, perpetuated by Rimsky Korsakov and Peter Shaffer. His Falstaff is frankly populist in its aim, but has quite a few special effects in the orchestration, with solos for cello and clarinet. After a slowish start one gradually becomes involved in the considerable subtlety of the text, which is available in subtitled translations in several languages.

This production at the little rococo theatre in Schwetzingen Palace is ideal for home viewing. The sets are simplified but fully adequate to suggest the different scenes, the costumes are muted in colour and all the emphasis is upon inventive acting based on excellent teamwork and fine singing. John de Carlo from San Francisco has also played Verdi's Falstaff in Antwerp. He gives a marvellous characterisation of this archetypal figure, who is easily inveigled to bounce back and hasten to another certain humiliation, for us to relish in anticipation and delivery. A cruel story about total denial of personal shortcomings and enduring confidence in certain reciprocation of his roving sexual fancies.

It is a joy to watch and the direction for stage (Michael Hampe) and for the TV cameras is ideal. The understatement of the stage picture benefits from the high quality of DVD screen viewing. Arnold Östmann was in charge of a wonderful performance of The Magic Flute directed by Ingmar Bergmann, and this is an idiomatic account of Salieri's score, even though the orchestra is not one with 'authentic' instruments. In summary, it is an opera which looks good on screen and is far more enjoyable with vision than would be possible on CD.

The collage picture shown gives a good idea of the staging and style. I found it far more pleasurable than a prestigious large 19th C. opera DVD recently reviewed (Aida) filmed at a major opera house performance, and involving far more compromise for presenting to home audiences. With this one, you feel that you are not missing any important dimension. I recommend it warmly.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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