Shenanigans in Windsor.
Who is deceiving whom, about what? Disguise
and surprise. Plot and sub-plot. Who
is the master of the story against whom
the tables are turned? This is the Boito-Verdi
team’s comic masterpiece. You must concentrate
to keep up. With this DVD, blink and
you will miss a nuance or glance by
consummate singers and actors.
Some more recent productions
have depicted Falstaff as an obese buffoon,
the butt of the opera. Donald Gramm
reminds us that there is a great deal
more to Falstaff. This Falstaff is fat:
but not such as to render ludicrous
the scene courting Alice: or indeed
the frisson of sexual threat. Gramm
is the Master of the Garter Inn, a gullible,
loveable rogue who might just master
a garter also. He knows his worth and
knows that his role adds spice to life
and that his wit provides others with
humour. Gramm puts all this over in
a mixture of panache and insouciance
in acting and singing.
His voice range is
ideal, coping easily with high Gs but
descending to deep notes delivered with
tremendous strength of colour. Dynamically
he can deliver a gentle, almost whispered
note up to smooth stentorian volume
which fills the stage. His scene with
Benjamin Luxon (Ford / Fontana) is to
be relished: from silent acting to misplaced
confidentiality. With Kay Griffel (Alice),
Gramm provides legato phrases and lyrical
lines delivered almost silkily. Introspection
is not easy, but having struggled out
of the water, Gramm’s character revival
This must be one of
the best Falstaffs. Gramm’s early death
(seven years after this production)
was a great loss to the world’s operatic
Of course, Falstaff’s
plotting is simple stuff. That of Ford
is more complex. With the antlers hanging
over his head (literally when superimposed
on the screen), Benjamin Luxon makes
Ford’s green-eyed god entirely believable.
His severe, serious Fontana soars when
left alone at the Garter Inn. His musically
and physically manic end to Act 2 is
full of dynamic contrasts.
Plotting is not a male
preserve. Kay Griffel (Alice Ford) outmanoeuvres
Falstaff, her husband (twice) and Dr.
Caius. Verdi said of Alice, "…she
must have a bit of a devil about her.
It’s she who stirs the porridge…".
Griffel’s Alice is a refined ‘devil’,
but a very effective one nonetheless.
There is a mature cleverness here, which
later supports the relationship with
her daughter Nannetta. Just occasionally
I thought her vocal colouring was a
shade harsh particularly in the quartets
– if I am allowed to formalise part
of a scene. Otherwise her singing and
acting are faultless.
Nucci Condo (Mistress
Quickly) delivers a creamy mezzo particularly
in the low notes whereupon ‘Reverenza!’
takes on a life of its own. She is the
perfectly assured ‘trap-setter’: a deliverer
of phrase or line with over-arching
smoothness and deep vocal colours.
Nannetta is sung and
acted by one of the Glyndebourne favourites:
Elizabeth Gale: a consummate actress
and a floater of notes second to none.
Her purity of tone and focus is displayed
superbly on this DVD. I enjoyed particularly
her Fairy Queen. Her interplay with
the redoubtable Max-René Cosotti
(Fenton) is pure theatre both vocally
and visually: from the silhouetted kiss
behind the washing on the line to her
resignation / petulance when her Mother
interrupts her final Act re-union with
Fenton is the straight
simple tenor ‘hero’. This is a lyrical
performance of a comparatively small
romantic role which the then youthful
Cosotti despatches with ease.
Poor Dr. Caius: a true
‘butt of jokes’ of a role in which John
Fryatt excels. In his outraged opening
scene his delivery is exemplary and
his interplay with Bernard Dickerson
(Bardolfo) and Ugo Trama (Pistola) is
excellent. His crisp tenor contrasts
with them and Gramm to produce a distinctive
character who will inevitably fail.
Save for one jarring
moment in Act 1 when they ‘play’ to
the camera, Dickerson and Trama produce
intelligently supportive cameo roles.
Reni Penkova, in the small role of Meg,
is somewhat of a casting luxury. She
is even given a husband in this performance
to join the silent role of the innkeeper.
Incidentally, for purists, I should
note that some liberties are taken with
All this would be to
no avail without strong orchestral support:
I would agree with those who said of
the original performances that the orchestra
was superb. Whilst Pritchard’s conducting,
drive, tempi and phrasing are excellent
I do have occasional reservations about
the balance between the orchestra and
singers. Maybe this was a microphone
problem: maybe not. Just occasionally
the singers are almost lost in a wealth
of orchestral sound.
I appreciate that this
production was met with critical acclaim
when first seen. However I am not unreservedly
enthusiastic. The raised central stage
works satisfactorily for Act 1, and
well in Act 2, but with the huge central
oak dominating the raised area in the
third Act the space was not adequate
for the free flowing movement by the
fairies, nymphs, goblins and imps to
match the flowing music.
So much for the components:
but it is the composite whole which
is critical: this is not an opera of
aria and recitative but of constantly
changing patterns of vocal and orchestral
sound against a taut storyline. A point
made in the accompanying notes (by Sandra
Leupold) providing synopsis and some
commentary. However to say that "This
opera for advance music lovers is an
intellectual pleasure…"may well
be true but it will thrill also those
who do not live in an ivory tower. She
also says it "…never allows any
real cheerfulness to set in…".
I think not. I shall respond and conclude
with Verdi’s words when writing the
opera, "… I’m enjoying myself.
Falstaff is a rogue who gets up to every
kind of mischief…the opera is entirely
comic!" – as in my opinion this