This production was filmed live at
the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2001. The key
attraction for the purchaser is the presence of Willard White as Sir
John Falstaff. Though this may seem an odd role for the singer, his
acting and singing quality are such that one forgets entirely his presence
as the only black singer in an otherwise white cast. In fact he gives
the best performance I have ever seen in terms of subtlety of expression.
By that I mean both his musical intelligence as well as his superbly
understated acting. Having recently reviewed an enjoyable traditional
performance with an appropriately fat Sir John, the sight of Willard
White in the dapper getup of an Edwardian country gentleman, looking
barely overweight, was a surprise. What this lent the performance was
a feeling that Falstaff might very well succeed in seducing anyone he
wished. Far from being unappetising he seemed (my wife confirmed!) very
attractive. However, this focussed one on his immorality and self-absorption
rather than his ludicrousness; characteristics that Verdi clearly wished
to emphasize in his subtly worked final opera. The remaining cast are
all very fine. I particularly enjoyed Pistola
and Bardolfo who must have come from the Arthur
Daley school of business ethics and are all the more enjoyably disreputable
for it. The various wives make a first class ensemble and are for a
change clearly delineated as different characters, not just a collection
of interchangeable foils for Falstaff.
The setting takes a little
adjustment: it looks like the inside of a huge wooden barn and had Copland’s
Rodeo cowboys suddenly emerged from the wings I would have been
unsurprised. But with the assistance of multiple doors, trapdoors and
high openings this unpromising acreage of brown varnished wood did provide
a visually acceptable backdrop. Only the huge set of antlers (get it?)
that hang over the action in the final scene make for significant visual
variety. The video director has chosen to keep the cameras well back
for too much of the opera so there is a slight feeling of viewing it
through the wrong end of a telescope. By contrast Willard White’s first
class acting make the close ups utterly absorbing,
he expresses volumes with the merest twitch of an eyebrow.
The orchestral sound is
spacious and somewhat recessed. The voices too are back from the microphones.
The surround sound, I reviewed the disc using the DTS soundtrack, is
effective in placing the listener within the Festival auditorium. On
my setup the disc defaulted to PCM Stereo and no subtitles, I would
have expected a different default, at least to one of the surround formats.
However, it was easily changed.
Since I have the luxury
of being able to choose, I’d go for this one over the TDK/Muti reviewed
recently, entirely because this one has the liveliness the Italian production
rather lacked. But if you expect this masterpiece to look as Verdi expected,
buy Muti. Both make excellent purchases and are of course cheaper than
most 2CD issues of the opera, coming as they do on a single DVD.
An unusual but intelligent reinterpretation of Verdi’s great masterpiece
with Willard White superb in the title role.