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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff - opera in three acts (1893)
Falstaff - Tito Gobbi (bar); Alice Ford - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (sop); Ford - Rolando Panerai (bar); Meg Page - Nan Merriman (mezzo); Mistress Quickly - Fedora Barbieri (cont); Nannetta - Anna Moffo (sop); Fenton - Luigi Alva (ten); Pistol - Nicola Zaccaria (bass); Bardolph - Renato Ercolani (ten); Dr. Caius - Tomaso Spataro (ten)
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/Herbert von Karajan
rec. June 1956, Kingsway Hall, London. ADD
EMI CLASSICS 0946 3 77349 2 6 [55.02 + 64.36]

Falstaff was the culmination of Verdi’s long career as an opera composer. He had really believed his compositional days were over after Aida. Nearly a decade later, persuaded by his publisher, he embarked on a rewriting of Simon Boccanegra. This involved his working with Arrigo Boito, an accomplished librettist and also a composer; it was an association Verdi relished. Premiered at La Scala in March 1881 the revised Boccanegra, unlike the 1857 original, was a triumph. Even at the age of 68 his inner genius was alive and well. Ricordi and Boito subtly pointed Verdi towards Shakespeare’s Otello. Shakespeare was a poet revered by Verdi. Gently, via synopsis and Boito’s verses, Otello was written. It was a piece with significant orchestral complexity and marked a major compositional movement from Verdi, even compared to the greatness within Aida and Don Carlos, its immediate predecessors. As Budden (The Operas of Verdi. Vol. 3) puts it, In common with all great tragedies Otello harrows but at the same time uplifts. It was premiered, again at La Scala, six years after the revised Boccanegra. Verdi was then 74 years of age and really did think he had finished operatic composition. But he had not allowed for Boito. Three years after the premiere of Otello Verdi wrote to a friend What can I tell you? I’ve wanted to write a comic opera for forty years, and I’ve known ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ for fifty… however, the usual buts and I don’t know if I will ever finish it…I am enjoying myself. Boito’s vital contribution in enabling Verdi to match Shakespeare was in his capacity for drawing out a taut libretto from the plays concerned. Boito reduced Otello by six-sevenths and in Falstaff reduces the 23 characters in The Merry Wives of Windsor to just ten in the opera. The composer wrote Falstaff for his own enjoyment whilst his mind must, inevitably, have gone back from time to time to his only other comic opera, Il Giorno di Regno, and its abject failure at its premiere at La Scala in 1840. With Falstaff, the outcome was all that Verdi could have hoped. His ‘little enjoyment’ as he called it was a triumph at its premiere at La Scala on 9 February 1893. The greatest Italian composer was 80 years of age. It was a great culmination to a great career.

Verdi’s orchestration in Falstaff, with its final fugue, represents challenges to even the best of the conductors with a natural feel for the Verdian melodic line and idiom. None had this feel more than Arturo Toscanini whose presence in the orchestra of La Scala at the premiere of Verdi’s penultimate opera, Otello, is well documented. Many commentators, who view them as definitive, constantly refer to his series of live performances of Verdi operas issued by RCA. That of Falstaff in 1950 (74321 72372-2) featured Giuseppe Valdengo in the name part. Its issue blew the very worthwhile 1949 Cetra recording out of the water in pro-Toscanini critics’ eyes. Featuring the sappy and well-characterised Falstaff of Taddei in an all-Italian cast under Mario Rossi’s idiomatic, flexible and sympathetic baton it did not have a wide distribution. Its many virtues can now be better assessed via the Warner Fonit re-issue (8573 82652-2). To mount a realistic challenge to the Toscanini hegemony, producer Walter Legge sailed in with a well-balanced cast for his label. This is the issue under review. It first saw the light of day in mono in 1957. The sonics of the original mono recording, made in London in that most sympathetic venues, Kingsway Hall, and with Christopher Parker in charge, made an immediate impact. Rumours began to circulate as to a stereo set-up having been present at the recording sessions and in 1961 a stereo version was issued. Why the delay? I do not know if there were technical reasons in respect of pressing the then new groove patterns in the LPs necessary for stereo. From personal experience I do know that even with first class stylus and arm, heavily modulated passages could cause problems. I had hassle at the time with the last scene on a Decca stereo issue of highlights of its Ballo in Maschera. Neither retailers nor record company could resolve the issue. On this recording Parker does facilitate Karajan’s very wide orchestral dynamic and which may have posed pressing problems in the early stereo days.

It was not only Karajan’s variation of dynamic and the mellifluous orchestral sound that was greatly admired in this recording, but also his grasp of the humour, comic drama and moments of bitter irony. In this he was aided by Tito Gobbi’s interpretation of the title role. Although it was argued, and after innumerable further recordings of the work it still is, that Gobbi does not have the ideal ripeness, fruity sap if you like, for the role. Maybe, but he lives and portrays the facets of Falstaff’s character and every nuance of the words as no other interpreter has done since. Equally important, he reacts to and plays off his colleagues in a manner that is unequalled in any other recorded performance. This is vividly heard in his initial welcoming of Mistress Quickly on her bringing response to his letters to the wives (CD1 tr.14) and his different tone and characterisation when she returns, after his experience of being tipped from the laundry basket into the Thames, and tempts Falstaff the Herne’s Oak to (CD2. 13-14). Very evident also are the subtle differences in Gobbi’s vocal bravado in Falstaff’s honour monologue (CD1 tr.4) and his singing as he calls for wine after Falstaff’s dipping as he praises his paunch and the lack of honour such as his elsewhere. As characterisations go, Gobbi’s Falstaff is matched in every respect by Fedora Barbieri’s Quickly. No question about vocal colour here, her fruity contralto tones are as to the manner born; an outstanding interpretation. If none of the other singers quite come up to the standards of Gobbi and Barbieri, there is barely a weak link. Luigi Alva’s Fenton is light-toned and beautifully phrased. Anna Moffo, in one of her first recordings, has an ethereal middle voice that comes into its own in the final scene (CD2 trs.17-26) although there is a touch of unsteadiness at the very top of her voice. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is a little arch as Mistress Ford whilst Rolando Panerai as her husband is strong-voiced in a role that suits him well (CD1 trs.14-20). Nan Merriman is a good Meg whilst Renato Ercolani and Nicola Zaccaria are excellent as Falstaff’s two-faced cronies.

This recording was excellently remastered in 1999 for issue in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series (7243 5 67083-2). This bargain-priced version follows the same disc and track layout. That is my only criticism. Opportunity should have been taken to put all of acts 1 and 2 on CD1. There is a track-listing and the same essay and excellent track-related synopsis as on the GROC issue which has a full libretto and translations lacking here. At bargain price this excellent recording and performance should join the shelves of any Verdi collection from which it is currently absent.

Robert J Farr

see also review by Christopher Fifield


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