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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff - opera in three acts (1893)
Falstaff - Ruggero Raimondi (bass-bar); Alice Ford - Barbara Fritolli (sop); Ford - Manuel Lanza (bar); Meg Page - Laura Polverelli (mezzo); Mistress Quickly - Elena Zilio (cont); Nannetta - Mariola Cantarero (sop); Fenton - Daniil Shtoda (ten); Pistol - Luigi Roni (bass); Bardolph - Gianluca Floris (ten); Dr. Caius - Carlo Bosi (ten)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Zubin Mehta
rec. live, Teatro Communale, Florence, 12 May 2006
Stage Director, Luca Ranconi. Set design, Margherita Palli. Costume design, Carlo Maria Diappi
Directed for TV and Video by Paola Teoldi
Sound format, DD 5.1. DTS 5.1. LPCM stereo. Picture format 16:9 anamorphic NTSC
Introductory essay in English, German and French
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French and Spanish

Falstaff was the culmination of Verdi’s long career as an opera composer. He had talked of retirement after the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera in 1858 and believed that he had laid down his compositional pen after Aida in 1871. But nearly a decade later, persuaded by his publisher, he embarked on a rewriting of Simon Boccanegra of 1857. This involved his working with Arrigo Boito, an accomplished librettist and also a composer; it was an association Verdi relished. The revised Boccanegra, unlike the 1857 original, was a success at La Scala in 1881 and showed that even at the age of 68 Verdi’s inner genius was alive and well. Ricordi and Boito subtly pointed Verdi towards Shakespeare’s Othello. Verdi loved and revered Shakespeare above any other poet. Slowly, via constant personal contact and communication, Boito produced a libretto that sparked Verdi; even more slowly Otello was written. It is a work of significant orchestral complexity that marked major compositional developments, even compared to the revised Boccanegra and the lyrical greatness within Aida and Don Carlos, its immediate predecessors. It was premiered, again at La Scala, six years after the revised Boccanegra. Verdi was then 74 years of age and once again thought 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. He had 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. Inevitably during its composition his mind must have wandered back to the tragic domestic circumstances of the death of his wife and children; circumstances that surrounded the failure of his only other comic opera, Il Giorno di Regno, at La Scala in 1840. With Falstaff, the outcome was utterly different. Verdi’s 28th and final opera, ‘my little enjoyment’ as he called it, was all he could have hoped for and was a triumph at its premiere at La Scala on 9 February 1893. The greatest Italian composer ever was eighty years of age. It was a magnificent culmination to a great career.

The orchestration in Falstaff, with its final fugue, presents challenges to even the best of conductors with a natural feel for the Verdian melodic line and idiom. None achieved this ‘feel’ more than Arturo Toscanini whose presence in the orchestra of La Scala at the premiere of Otello gave him many privileged insights, albeit his tendency in his later years to over drive the tempi detracted from them. But as with the famous audio recording of Falstaff conducted by Karajan (see review) the man on the rostrum can make or break a performance reducing the sparkling music to a pedestrian plod. Zubin Mehta, the conductor here, has had a chequered recording career since his great successes with Il Trovatore (RCA) and Turandot (Decca), perhaps getting distracted by three tenor spectaculars. However, in more recent years as Musical Director at Munich and here at the Maggio Musicale in Florence his touch has returned. So too has the singing of Ruggero Raimondi as the eponymous old roué himself. I have always liked Raimondi’s tone from his earliest recording, of La Forza del Destino, whilst always recognising that he had to reach for a natural bass’s lower notes. I did not enjoy his thin tone in his portrayal of the villains in Les Contes d’Hoffmann recorded at the Arena Macerata in August 2004 (see review). But there, as here, his acted portrayal is outstanding with the added advantage of better vocal health and consequent tonal cover and colour. These skills are particularly evident in Falstaff’s solos L’onore! L’adri! (CH. 4) and Ehi Taverniere (CH. 25). Raimondi’s diction, vocal expression and characterisation at these points are outstanding. Add his natural acting ability and this portrayal can stand comparison with that of both Bryn Terfel in the over-frenetic Covent Garden performance (BBC/ROH) and Ambrogio Maestri at La Scala (TDK OPFAL). As Falstaff’s arch-opponent and intended seduction, Barbara Fritolli is Mistress Ford on several of the recordings. Her acted and sung portrayal evinces her stage experience. Listen to her ease of vocalisation and her subtle management of the interactions with the other wives. This is not easy to bring off and without this element the scintillating music of the scenes goes for nothing. As her husband, Manuel Lanza sings adequately and is expressive in his monologue (CH. 17). Of the other wives, Laura Polverelli is spirited in the difficult part of Meg Page whilst Elena Zilio as Quickly lacks vocal prowess in the lower regions of the voice. This is particularly noticeable for those with memories of Fedora Barbieri’s portrayal with those loaded Reverenzas. Of the young lovers, Mariola Cantarero sings well as Nannetta and manages to float her lines in the Windsor Forest scene (CH. 30) although her figure is a little matronly for the part. Daniil Shtoda sings her lover, Fenton. He has too much edge to his tone to be ideal and his acting is wooden, his eyes far too often on the conductor not his partner as he declares his love.

Verdi certainly saw his creation as a comic opera, although there is more than a savage bite in the humiliation of Falstaff. But then I suppose the same could be said of Bartolo in Rossini’s Barber and a host of other works of the genre. In a buffa or a comic opera somebody has to get their come-uppance! But is Falstaff a social comment on the relationship between the impoverished but pretentious aristocracy coming up against the nouveau riche? This modern staging by Luca Ronconi, with sets by Margherita Palli and costumes by Carlo Maria Diappi, seems to suggest as much. The ladies are decked out in floral dresses with handbags and hats to match in opulent house and gardens. Ford is a city type with a bowler hat and carrying a briefcase stuffed with money notes. Falstaff’s tavern is very seedy and on a raised level requiring entrance past barrels and via a staircase. His room is bare except for a bed. Pistol looks every inch, particularly via the hairstyle, a punk with his red-nosed associate being of similar ilk. A mini coup-de-théâtre comes in the opening of the final scene. Falstaff has been put to bed by the returning Quickly who had returned to tempt his amorous ego once more. She covers him up as the others plot his further discomfiture in Windsor Forest. As the scene opens, trees come in through the window with stage and set movements bringing about a swift, almost magical, transformation (CH. 28). Falstaff’s bed is among the foliage and he awakes to count the chimes. The fairies are rather punkish and only in this last scene did I feel the designers and producer miss a trick or two. Otherwise, aided by Raimondi’s consummate portrayal this updated production works, not something that can be said for all such efforts.

Robert J Farr




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