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Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Falstaff - Commedia Lirica in Three Acts
Sir John Falstaff ... Donald Gramm (bass-baritone)
Ford ... Benjamin Luxon (baritone)
Fenton ... Max-René Cosotti (tenor)
Dr. Caius ... John Fryatt (tenor)
Bardolfo ... Bernard Dickerson (tenor)
Pistola ... Ugo Trama (bass)
Mrs. Alice Ford ... Kay Griffel (soprano)
Nannetta ... Elizabeth Gale (soprano)
Mrs. Quickly ... Nucci Condo (mezzo-soprano)
Mrs. Meg Page ... Reni Penkova (mezzo-soprano)
Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/John Pritchard
Recorded at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera 1976
DVD ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 083 [118.00]

 

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 is masterly.

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 stage.

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.

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 the text.

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 recording proves.

Robert McKechnie

 



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