RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff - a lyric comedy in three acts (1893)
Libretto by Arrigo Boito, after The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 by William Shakespeare
Sir John Falstaff – Christopher Purves
Dr Caius – Peter Hall
Bardolph – Alasdair Elliott
Pistol – Paolo Battaglia
Mrs Page (Meg) – Jennifer Holloway
Mrs Ford (Alice) – Dina Kuznetsova
Mistress Quickly – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Nannetta – Adriana Kucerová
Fenton – Bülent Bezdüz
Ford – Tassis Christoyannis
The Glyndebourne Chorus/Richard Jones
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes, East Sussex, June 2009.
Production by Richard Jones, with Sets and Costumes by Ultz
Directed and produced for Television by François Roussillon
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/16:9
Sound format: 2.0 PCM Stereo/5.1 DTS Digital Surround
Menu language: English; Subtitles English, French, German, Spanish, Italian
Booklet notes in English, French, German with colour photographs of the production
OPUS ARTE OA 1021 D [136.00]
Falstaff was Verdi’s last opera and is centred on one of his favourite Shakespearean characters. The composer worked on it for approximately three and a half years, reworking every scene multiple times, refining the music and improving on the wit. He continued this process of revision even whilst the score was being printed, through rehearsals and apparently, even during the first run of performances. The result was a masterful comedy but its greatness is due not only to Verdi’s musical genius but also and to my mind, mostly to Arrigo Boito’s magnificent libretto. Boito based the story on Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor and incorporated material from Shakespeare’s historic play Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He condenses the plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor and cleverly draws on Henry IV to create a larger than life Falstaff that sustains the opera throughout. The beauty of Shakespeare’s language is preserved in the Italian translation, as Boito had the brilliant idea of writing the verse in an antique manner, directly extracting words from Boccaccio and other satirical authors from the Italian Renaissance period. The result was, according to many experts, the best and most intelligent operatic adaptation of works by Shakespeare; a statement with which I entirely agree.
It is generally known that Verdi himself supervised numerous rehearsals of Falstaff during January and early February 1893, just before the work was premiered at La Scala, in Milan, on 9 February 1893. The composer insisted on authenticity and a natural style of acting to strengthen the character depiction, which was what Verdi was interested in. He wanted characters with substance and not buffoons; therefore always insisted that his Falstaff was not an “opera buffa” and actually called it a “commedia lirica”. In his quest to preserve Shakespeare’s England and to make every detail of the opera authentic, Verdi sent the production designer of that first performance, to London and Windsor to ensure that costumes and settings were as close to the real thing as possible. Bearing this in mind, I have generally come to expect a realistic approach with great attention to period detail. So, as I read the booklet notes and looked at the photographs of the production, prior to watching the DVD, I could not help but commenting to myself: “Falstaff set in post-war Britain? Hmmmm! I don’t think so!” This was my initial reaction and I must admit that I felt sceptical about the whole concept.
The director of this Glyndebourne production is the famous (or infamous, depending on one’s perspective) Richard Jones. I have not seen his Macbeth, also at Glyndebourne, but he reportedly shocked the audience in the first night by presenting Macbeth as a crude, rough army-type in tartan. If perhaps Jones’s Macbeth was meant to shock, this production of Falstaff was surely intended to please. He chose the post-war period, which is a time that Britons tend to remember with nostalgia, a certain feeling of euphoria and pride, as the country had just been victorious in World War II. It was a time of optimism, where the prospect of a normal life was again possible and people were beginning to recover from the horrors of war and the Nazi monster had been defeated. It was a period where light had dispersed darkness and Good triumphed over Evil. Things were simple and life could be figured out in almost black and white without any grey, shadowy areas. Therefore, setting this Falstaff production in this particular period is immediately appealing to a British audience, particularly if they come from that part of the population that grew up or were young adults during those years; they’re usually well represented at Glyndebourne.
Having said all that, I am happy to write that the production actually works although there were some minor aspects that I thought a little annoying, as for example, the exaggerated number of cabbages everywhere; however, this becomes irrelevant soon enough. Besides the fact that the period is appealing to most British audiences and the production is truly inventive and attractive, its success and effectiveness is mainly due to two things: The charming, clever set and costume design by Ultz and Christopher Purves’s admirable performance in the title role. Purves is genuinely funny and fits the part to perfection; however he does not exaggerate his portrayal to give us a caricature or make Falstaff ridiculous; instead he depicts the corpulent knight with witty sobriety. His singing is outstanding and his body expression, comic timing and dramatic skills are excellent. These contribute to a full embodiment of the character, making the audience believe that they are watching a real Falstaff and not an artist playing him.
The cast is uniformly fine and effectively support Purves’s Falstaff. I particularly enjoyed Adriana Kucerová’s Nannetta, who sings the part with a suitably cheeky, youthful tone and who has a very pleasant stage presence. The “merry wives” Alice and Meg, as well as the Mistress Quickly, are brilliantly sung and played by Dina Kuznetsova, Jennifer Holloway and Marie-Nicole Lemieux; especially Lemieux who gives us an extremely effective, very witty Mistress Quickly. Among the men, apart from the outstanding Purves, there are solid performances from Tassis Christoyannis who makes a great Ford, and from Peter Hoare as Dr Caius. Pistol, as portrayed by Paolo Battaglia, is very effective and the same can be said of Alasdair Elliott as Bardolph. Fenton is here sung by a little known, young Turkish tenor, Bülent Bezdüz who possesses a fresh, youthful voice that suits the part well, although his understated stage presence makes one wonder if this Nannetta would actually fall for him.
The Glyndebourne Chorus give an admirable performance and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, under the charismatic baton of Vladimir Jurowski delivers the score with style. The DVD is complemented by a couple of extra features: an illustrated synopsis and a cast gallery. The production was expertly and effectively directed and produced for television by François Roussillon; a fact that makes the whole work even more attractive.
This Falstaff is immensely enjoyable and amongst the best that I have watched. I strongly recommend it whether you admire Verdi’s last work or not. This is an amiable, pleasing production with an exceptionally fine cast and truly great performances from the orchestra and choir.
An exceptionally fine cast and truly great performance.