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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff - opera in three acts (1893)
Libretto by Arrigo Boito
Sir John Falstaff…José Van Dam
Ford…William Stone
Alice Ford…Barbara Madra
Mistress Quickly…Livia Budai
Mistress Page…Benedetta Pecchioli
Fenton…Laurence Dale
Nannetta…Elzbieta Szmytka
Bardolph…Franco Careccia
Pistol…Mario Luperi
Doctor Caius…Ugo Benelli
Chorus and Orchestra, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie de Bruxelles/Sylvain Cambreling
Recorded at the Théâtre de l’Archevèche Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 1987
Produced by Lluis Pasqual
WARNER DVD 5050467-4469-2-2 [130 mins]


I feel I have to commence this review by stating what, to many, will seem the obvious. That is that any portrait of Falstaff would have to be brilliant to eclipse that of Tito Gobbi. Gobbi had such a huge stage presence in the role; encompassing the ageing knight’s pomposity and ridiculous arrogance, his rampant, irresponsible sensuality and, yet, his vulnerability too, and, ultimately, his great humanity. In the classic 1956 Karajan (audio) recording (EMI CDS5 67083-2), Gobbi colours his voice to brilliant effect conveying all such nuances and so many subtleties in his characterisation. That recording has so much more to offer: the Philharmonia on top form, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, a stinging Mistress Ford and Anna Moffo, delectable as Nannetta. In passing one also remembers another wonderful Falstaff – Sir Geraint Evans to be heard on Decca 417 168-2 conducted by Sir Georg Solti.

But to this 1987 DVD video recording with José Van Dam as Falstaff. As an actor Van Dam may not have the range and sheer presence of Gobbi, and he might make more use of the stage, but the voice is colourful and powerful enough. He can be slyly mischievous and grumpily melancholy to order. He is brusque and outraged, venting his absurd arrogance and twisted logic in his Act I aria ‘L’onore Ladri’ as he scolds his companions for quibbling over delivering those two love letters to Alice Ford and Meg Page. Biliously lit and sat in front of the inn, at the beginning of Act III he is all self pity, spirits dampened after being dumped in the Thames. However he quickly recovers as he downs a glass of mulled wine, noting with increasingly swagger how the beverage trills round his stomach, then his head, then his whole being and then through the world. Later, in Act III, brought to book, he cringes and crumples into a pathetic heap, terrified at the prospect of approaching fairies (to look upon them is death) in his ‘Love transforms man into a beast’.

The supporting cast impress strongly and they convey a real sense of spontaneous enjoyment. Barbra Madra’s Alice Ford is cheekily knowing and waspish, William Stone’s Ford is nicely, darkly bewildered in his Act II aria, ‘E sogno? O realtà’ as he falls prey to jealousy at the prospect of Falstaff seducing his wife. The two young lovers are very well cast. Laurence Dale makes a dashing and fervent admirer but why does he have to wear such ridiculous pantaloons? The costumes apart from this aberration are sumptuous and colourful and pertinent to the period. Cast opposite Dale, Elzbieta Szmytka makes a very appealing Nannetta, sweetly voiced and how silkily she carries off those long sustained chords. Livia Budai also shines as the conniving Mistress Quickly.

Visually, this production is not successful. Practicality, and, maybe frugality, rules. The lighting for Act I, set in the Garter Inn is far too dim. One can hardly recognise the characters and the set is scarcely recognisable as such either. Other sets are oddly fashioned, too, with a medley of brickwork and structures reminiscent of a viaduct, serving as the garden and home of Ford. A single line of trees stands in for Windsor Forest.

Although Van Dam’s more restrained stage presence may not dispel images of Gobbi, or Sir Geraint Evans, this is an enjoyable experience with some very fine singing from an enthusiastic ensemble cast. Lighting disappoints.

Ian Lace

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