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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff – opera in three acts after Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. (1892)
Libretto by Arrigo Boito
Falstaff – Leonard Warren (baritone)
Ford – Giuseppe Valdengo (baritone)
Fenton – Giuseppe di Stefano (tenor)
Alice Ford – Regina Resnik (soprano)
Anne Ford (Nannetta) – Licia Albanese (soprano)
Dame Quickly – Cloe Elmo (contralto)
Meg Page – Martha Lipton (mezzo)
Bardolph – Alessio de Paolis (tenor)
Pistol – Lorenzo Alvary (bass)
Dr. Caius – Leslie Chabay (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera/Fritz Reiner
Recorded broadcast of 26 February 1949.
GUILD HISTORICAL GHCD 2309/10 [62:31 + 68:27]

Falstaff holds the distinction of not only being Verdi’s final opera but also his only successful opera buffa; his first, written at the age of 27, was a total failure. Verdi and his librettist, Boito, at first kept the composition of Falstaff in complete secrecy, only revealing it publicly after the completion of the first act. This work displays Verdi’s true versatility: the soaring melodrama of his previous works is gone, replaced by music ingeniously constructed to display charm, wit, and light-heartedness.

This particular recording is notable for several reasons. First, the recording is not just of the opera; instead, it is a recording of the Met broadcast of February 26, 1949 and includes commentary by Milton Cross. As the Richard Caniell’s liner notes explain, this production was one of the huge hits of the 1948-49 season, due, in part, to the illustrious conductor, Fritz Reiner, as well as to the work’s rarity before 1949 - at least at the Met. Leonard Warren, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Licia Albanese stand to this day as among the best voices of the 20th century. These "time capsule" qualities alone make this recording worth owning.

The recording holds some incredible singing and playing. The American baritone, Leonard Warren, gives a great performance. His rich, dark timbre is perfect for the bamboozling, obese Falstaff. As usual, his upper register is exciting — this voice is rare in its naturally dark, yet resonant timbre in combination with a virtually unlimited top. Di Stefano sings beautifully. Once again, the listener is rewarded with a truly exceptional voice: full, lyrical, completely focused, and produced with extreme ease. He and Licia Albanese make a remarkable combination. The young, clandestine lovers sing sensitively together, and their intermittent bouts of flirting are refreshing, passionate and quite hilarious. Other members of the cast are equally adroit in their singing and characterization. Giuseppe Valdengo as Ford works well with Warren, as their baritone voices are strikingly different. Alessio de Paolis and Lorenzo Alvary as Falstaff’s henchmen sing with incredible spirit and hilarious inflection.

Reiner’s conception of the piece is, at times, a bit haphazard. He allows the orchestra to peak too often and too regularly rather than projecting the dramatic action in large-scale phrases. The result is too much weight and importance assigned to too many different occasions.

We must not be surprised at the fallibility of the sound given the historical nature of this recording of a live broadcast. An ambient hiss is present more often than it isn’t, and in many places, the orchestra is somewhat obscured by a sort of haze. For these reasons, it is difficult to make many specific comments in regard to the performance. However, there is no doubt that this recording is top notch. The questionable sound quality prevents it from being one’s primary recording of this work; however, it offers much insight not only into Verdi’s final opera but also into the operatic achievements of a previous generation.

Jonathan Rohr

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