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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff - opera in three acts (1893)
Falstaff - Giuseppe Taddei (baritone); Alice Ford, a Windsor wife - Raina Kabaivanska (soprano); Ford, her husband - Rolando Panerai (baritone); Meg Page, another Windsor wife - Trudeliese Schmidt (mezzo); Mistress Quickly, a friend of Alice and Meg - Christa Ludwig (mezzo); Nannetta, Alice Ford’s daughter – Janet Perry (soprano); Fenton, in love with Nannetta – Francesco Araiza (tenor); Pistol, a reprobate and supposed friend of Falstaff - Federico Davia (bass); Bardolph, another reprobate and supposed friend - Heinz Zednik (tenor); Dr. Caius, an elderly suitor of Nannetta favoured by her father - Piero De Palma (tenor)
Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert Von Karajan
Produced and directed by Herbert Von Karajan.
Sets designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen. Costumes by Georges Wakhevitch
rec. live, June 1982, Grosse Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Summer Festival
Booklet includes Karajan biography, synopsis and essay in German and English
Video presentation 4:3. PAL. Stereo. Dolby Digital
SONY 88697 296009 [176:00]
Experience Classicsonline

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 really believed that he had laid down his compositional pen after Aida in 1871. Nearly a decade later, persuaded by his publisher, he embarked in 1857 on a rewriting of Simon Boccanegra his 21st opera. This involved working with Arrigo Boito, an accomplished librettist and also a composer; it was an association Verdi relished. The revised Simon Boccanegra 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 Otello. Verdi loved and revered Shakespeare above any other poet. Boito produced a libretto that inspired Verdi and very slowly Otello was written. It was premiered, again at La Scala, six years after the revised Simon Boccanegra. Verdi was then 74 years of age and 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 to be found in his capacity for drawing a taut libretto from the plays. He had reduced Otello by 80% and in Falstaff he reduces the 23 characters in The Merry Wives of Windsor to just ten in the opera.
 
Verdi wrote Falstaff for his own enjoyment. It was his first comedy since the failure of his only other comic opera Un Giorno di Regno. Inevitably, during its composition, his mind must have wandered back to the tragic domestic circumstances of the death of his wife and children that surrounded that operatic nose-dive 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. It was a triumph at its premiere at La Scala on 9 February 1893. The greatest Italian composer ever was then 80 years of age. It was a magnificent culmination to a great career.
 
As with the contemporaneously-issued Sony DVD of Verdi’s Don Carlo, also from the Salzburg Festival (Sony 88697296019 - to be reviewed), this issue is as much a veneration of Karajan in the year of his centenary as of Verdi and his opera. Unlike the Don Carlo, this Falstaff was made in the second year of the Salzburg production with the singers the same as in the first year. Well before the time of this recording, Karajan had used the Salzburg Festival to take full and total control in the theatre as director, as well as on the podium. He also chose his set and costume designers. He had become the Svengali of Salzburg. This was how he wanted it. Some productions from the 1970s were filmed by Unitel, often with film studio additions, and with the sound dubbed. The lip sync of the singers occasionally betrays the dubbing as it does with the production of Verdi’s Otello (see review).
 
Verdi’s Falstaff featured at the Salzburg Festival between 1935 and 1937 with Toscanini conducting Mariano Stabile in the title role. After conducting at the Festival in 1948 Karajan did not return until 1957 when he conducted Beethoven’s Fidelio. By then his work in the great opera houses of the world was widely recognised, not least by the recording companies, particularly Decca and by what is now EMI. It was for the latter that he recorded Falstaff in a memorable recording, one of the first opera recordings to be made in stereo (see review). It featured the strongly sung Ford of Rolando Panerai who sings the role in this recording, his third, having also taken the part in Bernstein’s recording of 1966. More remarkably, Giuseppe Taddei, Falstaff in this performance, appears in the eponymous role in a 1949 audio recording issued by Cetra (last available as Warner Fonit 8573 83515-2). In that recording, made in his early thirties his tone is ideally full and fruity and in many ways preferable to the admired interpretation by Gobbi. Cetra were not easily available in Britain and Taddei’s first Falstaff recording was overwhelmed by Karajan’s stereo version with Gobbi a characterful, but leaned-toned, Falstaff. Given Taddei’s long association with the role it is perhaps hardly surprising that his is the definitive interpretation in this performance. His tone is still plump and his vocal characterisation excellent. As one might expect from a man in his mid-sixties, his voice is not in the pristine condition of thirty years before. There are one or two occasions when the voice spreads and is a little unsteady under pressure as in the Honour monologue (Ch.4). But it is Taddei’s acted portrayal alone, irrespective of its other virtues that makes this performance worth watching. His eyes, facial expressions and body language are as one with the role. Taddei lives and portrays every nuance of the words. In the end one loves and respects this old roué whose amorous pretensions would be labelled as those of a dirty old man in present parlance. As his adversary, Ford, Rolando Panerai sings strongly with just a few raw patches at the top of his voice. The scene between the two baritones as Ford visits Falstaff with a bribe of money and discovers that he already knows when it is safe to visit Alice, is consummate vocal and acted opera (Ch.13). Panerai portrays Ford’s anger and confusion in his monologue (Ch.14) with plenty of both vocal heft, expression and without spread.
 
The portrayals of the two male veterans are the highlights of the performance. I did not find any of the women to be of comparable quality as singers or actors. Francesco Araiza is the better sung of the two lovers but he is not sufficiently light-toned to float and caress Fenton’s phrases at the start of the last scene (Ch.25). Janet Perry also lacks the ethereal vocal quality needed for the role, having altogether too much tone. Her lack of any mezza or sotto voce singing as Nannetta calls the elves and fairies in the last scene means that the magical effect in Verdi’s music is lost (Ch.27). Raina Kabaivanska’s Alice looking rather old is neither appealing nor ideally steady vocally (Ch.11). Christa Ludwig’s Quickly does not erase memories of Barbieri and Ligabue in the role. I was also somewhat irritated by the production having Quickly’s laughing and giggling excessively to herself behind Falstaff’s back as she follows up her reverenzas on bringing the letters of the two wives to the knight (Chs. 10-11). In contrast Ford and Caius plotting outside the inn after Falstaff has again fallen into Quickly’s trap is well done. Elsewhere I was irritated by the video director’s fidgety use of close-ups to the detriment of the wider scene.
 
Big pluses for the production and performance are the sets and costumes. Even the wide stage of the Salzburg Gross Festspielhaus seems appropriate for the opening scene of Falstaff’s quarters at the inn. The space is used adroitly as Falstaff berates and then chases and beats Bardolph and Pistol (Ch.4). Perhaps the best scenes are those outside Ford’s house as the wives plot their response to Falstaff’s letters (Chs. 5-9) with the set’s hedges and backdrop. The inside of the house with its large bay window (Chs.15-21) is also nicely done. In contrast, I have seen the final scene (Chs.25-30) better portrayed and achieving a more enchanting effect. Having over-large fairies dressed in green, as is the case with Nannetta, also misses something.
 
Once or twice, for fleeting moments, I wondered if my eyes and ears were in sync. The audio recording (DG 447 686-2) was made a year before the staged ones at Salzburg in 1981 and 1982, with the same cast. The DVD declares a live recording from the latter year and I did wonder if there had been any manipulation. In a very competitive market this performance does not stand out. The 1982 traditional production conducted by Giulini has a better all-round singing cast (see review), whilst for a more modern production the veteran Raimondi is a convincing knight (see review). Meanwhile I continue to enjoy Ambrogio Maestri under Muti at La Scala in 2001 (Euroarts 2051728) and hope for a DVD of Terfel’s 2008 performances in Peter Stein’s production for Welsh National Opera. I enjoyed it immensely in the theatre (see review). It has already been shown on the Welsh language TV channel.
 
Robert J Farr
 

 


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