Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Falstaff - Commedia lyrica in three acts (1889–1894)
Sir John Falstaff - Ruggero Raimondi (baritone)
Ford - Luca Salsi (baritone)
Mrs Alice Ford - Virginia Tola (soprano)
Nannetta - Sabina Puértolas (soprano)
Mrs Quickly - Cinzia De Mola (mezzo)
Mrs Meg Page - Liliana Mattei (mezzo)
Fenton - Tiberius Simu (tenor)
Dr Cajus - Gregory Bonfatti (tenor)
Bardolfo - Pietro Picone (tenor)
Pistola - Luciano Montanaro (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of Opéra Royal de Wallonie/Paolo Arrivabeni
rec. Palais Opéra de Liège, November 2009
Director, Set/Costume/Light Designer/Choreographer: Stefano Poda
Picture Format: NTSC/Colour/16.9
All regions: 0
Notes and synopsis: Italian, English, German and French
Subtitles: Italian, English, German, French and Spanish
DYNAMIC 33649 [129:00]

This is the Stefano Poda show. It is based on the words of Arrigo Boito and music of Giuseppe Verdi written for their opera Falstaff. Poda is the Director and designer of set, costume, lighting and choreography. Choreography? In Falstaff? Yes. Oh dear, yes. The risk in writing this review is to concentrate on the Poda input rather than that of Boito or Verdi. Here Poda is omnipresent until the opera finally sinks under the weight of his artifice and symbolism.

This production deploys a ‘one set fits all’ rising stage with side entrances backed by a huge star construction concealing a staircase. Onto that construction are projected various films, of shimmering water, letters of the alphabet, falling leaves and more. You would be hard put to recognise the Garter Inn, save for Falstaff on high, on wheeled consoles backed by bottles; or Ford’s garden or house. A number of members of the chorus holding branches might lead you to a wood but not necessarily to Windsor Great Park. But then, what of the huge cross that rises from the stage in that scene and dwarfs Falstaff when he is confessing his failings? Odd when you recall that Verdi wanted a Windsor based on realism for the sets with talk of the scene painter visiting Windsor to enable that to be achieved. He also wanted simple lighting, “... there’s need only of a bit of darkness in the forest scenes ...” Really? In various scenes the lights go up, down, on and off with no logic that I could detect.

Choreography? Let that wait for now. Let me look at ‘Old Paunchy’, as Verdi so affectionately described Falstaff. Indeed there are numerous references to the size of his girth throughout the opera, “Falstaff the huge - king of paunches ... the proud belly that kept him afloat ...” and so on. Therefore it is a bit of a surprise that Ruggero Raimondi (Falstaff) has not the vestige of a paunch – indeed not even a slight ‘tum’.

As a character, Falstaff is irrepressibly vainglorious. From benevolent despot through self-deluding lover, he delights in mischief but is fearful of discovery. He needs to be larger than life. In his younger days Raimondi could have brought off these demanding requirements but now, sadly, the years are beginning to tell. He was 68 when this was recorded. His stage movements are those of maturer years and much of Falstaff’s character is sadly diluted. Vocally he can still hold his own on high but his middle register tone is diminishing. So whilst the ‘honour’ aria rings out as do passages delivered forte, much else is but a shadow. In the opening scene at the Inn he lacks authority. His interaction with Quickly has little conspiratorial zip and his assignation with Alice is almost devoid of lyrical charisma.

Verdi described Alice as requiring “... a bit of a devil about her. It’s she who stirs the porridge.” In her early ensemble with De Mola (Quickly) Liliana Mattei (Meg) and Sabina Puértolas (Nannetta), there is initial difficulty of identification with similar white costumes and extravagant headgear for all more suited to Ascot than scheming Windsor wives. Virginia Tola (Alice) is allowed to be playful during the supposed seduction by Falstaff but otherwise this is a muted Alice that fails to take advantage of the potential vivacity of Tola, her vocal strength and her growing comic timing.

In this production one could conclude that it is De Mola (Quickly) who ‘stirs the pot’. She has a lovely deep creamy sound and ‘Reverenza’ is delivered with delicious (ironic) respect. Unfortunately when traversing on high and particularly at forte her voice develops a wobble which detracts from an otherwise comfortable warm tone.

Verdi regretted that the role of Meg was comparatively small: Mattei very ably despatches it with her pleasing mellow timbre. Sabina Puértolas as Nannetta completes the female quartet. Vocally she is a delight: bell-like clarity of tone, floated notes and a beautiful pianissimo.

Boito wrote that the love between Nannetta and Fenton “... must come in frequent bouts - they will keep on kissing - boldly - with brief, very rapid little dialogues. ..: it will be a most lively, merry love ...”(Letter from Boito to Verdi quoted in J. Budden The Operas of Verdi Vol. 3 p.422). Not here it isn’t. They have guardian angels who apparently control their movements. Whilst Simu (Fenton) delivers his aria Puértolas walks across stage front in slow motion. All a great pity because it distracts from Fenton’s steady and clear tone. When the two repeat their haunting motif, the angels raise a finger to their lips - admonishing quiet?

When Puértolas in her role as the Queen of the Fairies, delivers her lyrical instructions with enchanting sound standing on top of a console, the first distraction is a figure writhing to her front stage right, in apparent torment; the second is the substitution of the fairies by an almost static chorus of nuns.

Ford’s aria of jealousy is delivered without serious diversions. Luca Salsi (Ford) can therefore move from self-doubt through cynicism to outrage and vengeance without distraction. He does it all well as he so organises the chaotic search for Falstaff. This is a strong performance with Salsi sounding in command of the role focused on note, phrase and line.

Gregory Bonfatti is a slightly sharp-timbred Dr Caius taking such few opportunities to shine vocally as are given. Pietro Picone (Bardolfo) and Luciano Montanaro (Pistola) are disappointing neither having vocal strength and neither afforded the opportunity to turn the roles into comedy.

Musically the opera should be a lyrical rollicking roller-coaster of comedy until a pause for breath at the beginning of the last act. With Arrivabeni the orchestra hit all the notes but without dashing excitement. There are occasional mini pauses which left me trying to urge them on.

There’s a disappointing last act without any prodding of Falstaff. It’s a case of just the cast and extras moving back and forth across stage with rotating hand movements. The two couples for the ‘weddings’ are mounted on consoles from the first act - without the bottles - like figures on top of a wedding cake. Finally did I really see projected film of war-scenes during the thirty-plus camera-shot changes in the last four minutes?

DVDs of Falstaff are many. For a conventional approach that crackles and fizzes, I would watch again and again the 1976 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production at Glyndebourne - Arthaus Musik 101083 (see review).

For an updated version try another Glyndebourne production on Opus Arte OA 1021D with Christopher Purvis in the title role. This is the 2009 production by Richard Jones with distinctive costumes and clear camera-work. No doubts here about the plots and sub-plots. The updating makes for some curious anachronisms in the last act but otherwise is an accurate reflection of late-1940s suburbia. Vladimir Jurowski ensures an excellent stage and pit balance taking the music slightly more slowly but thereby enabling cast and musicians to extract every nuance.

In conclusion, accepting that the DVD being reviewed is the music and words of Verdi and Boito, you could look at it as an imaginative dateless setting with white and black costumes, extras, choreography, film and religious overtones all to stimulate the mind. But on any level this is not a beginner’s Falstaff.

Robert McKechnie

A production for aficionados who know Falstaff well.