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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff – lyric comedy in two acts (1889-90)
Libretto by Arrigo Boito after Shakespeare
Sir John Falstaff – Gabriel Bacquier (baritone)
Ford – Richard Stilwell (baritone)
Fenton – Max-René Cosotti (tenor)
Dr. Cajus – John Lanigan (tenor)
Bardolfo – Peter Maus (tenor)
Pistola – Ulrik Cold (bass)
Mrs. Alice Ford – Karan Armstrong (soprano)
Nannetta – Juta-Renate Ihloff (soprano)
Mrs. Quickly – Marta Szirmay (mezzo)
Mrs. Meg Page – Sylvia Lindenstrand (mezzo)
Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
Directed by Götz Friedrich
Filmed at BUFA Studios, Berlin, February-March 1979
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON UNITEL 073 4080 [125:00]


I have decidedly mixed feelings regarding ‘filmed’ opera - that is, opera shot on location or in the studio (as here) with a separate soundtrack dubbed on later. There are some advantages I suppose, such as no stage noise, better quality sound (sometimes) and cinematic realism, if that’s what you want. The downsides are lack of any real stage excitement or involvement and the worst thing for me, often poor dubbing and synchronisation of sound and picture.

This 1979 film of Verdi’s last opera has a smattering of both pros and cons. The poor lip sync is definitely there, with quite a delay in places between what you see and what you hear. Also, even though we know the singers are miming to their own voices, their actions and music are sometimes rather incongruous; in other words, they simply don’t look like they are actually singing at times. Once you accept these irritations, which do fade into the background as things progress, there’s actually quite a lot to enjoy here, with a generally very high level of singing and playing.

The chief draw is probably the title performance by Gabriel Bacquier in a part that, as far as I’m aware, he never recorded commercially. He was in exceptionally good voice in the 1970s - his Golaud on Serge Baudo’s 1978 Pelleas is one of the finest there is - and his voice has an ideally rich, dark timbre, virtually bass-baritone. He clearly enjoys the acting as well, relishing Sir John’s more eccentric moments - the outrageous dressing up in Act 2 - and knockabout farce (the basket scene) without losing sight of the subtler points of the character. The barbed sarcasm and wit he throws at his sidekicks Pistol and Bardolph really is funny, especially given the difference in stature of the tiny Peter Maus and the giant Ulrik Cold, who some may remember as Sarastro in Ingmar Bergman’s famous Magic Flute film. This broad humour contrasts beautifully with the wounded dignity he displays near the end; here, camera close-ups really do help, as Bacquier acts as well with his eyes as anything.

Richard Stilwell puts in a nicely rounded performance as the jealous Ford, his lighter but equally dramatic baritone providing a good foil for Bacquier.

Of the women, I particularly liked Karan Armstrong’s Alice Ford, well sung and vibrantly acted as well as being gorgeous to look at. The young lovers make an appealing pair, though Jutta Ihloff’s Nannetta doesn’t look a great deal younger than her mother!

Götz Friedrich’s completely naturalistic, studio-bound production does try to give us plenty of life and variety, the real feeling of a vibrant community. His fluid camera accurately captures telling moments, whether it be a grimace or a glance, and he often roves in a rhythmic counterpoint to the score itself, as in the final fugue. It is certainly true that we can experience more fully the wider world of these characters and it goes a long way to fulfilling Friedrich’s aim of making filmed opera a ‘real-life story turned into music’.

He is not afraid to show us overt sexuality, especially in the scene where Mistress Quickly uses her feminine ‘assets’ to entice the fat knight, who is so aroused he descends into lascivious groping. Friedrich also homes in on some of the darker elements of the story, showing how the normally placid community turn into a virtual lynch mob at one point in the Windsor Forest scene. It’s a deeply intelligent production from a director steeped in the theatre but looking to explore further in this medium.

Solti obviously loved the score and recorded the opera three times, of which this is the second. He conducts with great energy and forcefulness, perhaps a little too much at times, though it’s undeniably exciting. The soundtrack, recorded a year earlier in Vienna, sounds splendid with the orchestra on top form and well captured by top audio engineers Christopher Raeburn and Jimmy Lock.

There are no extras and the picture quality is a little dated and grainy though perfectly acceptable. I could also have done without the rather stern German voiceover that gives us a synoptic outline prior to each act; you can’t programme it out but can fast forward if it irritates. All told, there are too many good artists involved here for there not to be something to enjoy. There are other good Falstaffs on DVD, including the rather conceptualized Covent Garden production with Terfel and the much straighter La Scala one conducted by Muti, but if you don’t mind the dubbed film approach, this is pretty good.

Tony Haywood

 

 



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