Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff [125:19]
Sir John Falstaff – Fernando Corena (bass-baritone); Fenton – Juan Oncina/Kevin Miller (tenor); Ford – Walter Monarchesi (baritone); Dr Caius – Dermot Troy (tenor); Bardolfo – Daniel McCosham (tenor); Pistola (baritone); Alice Ford – Anna Maria Rovere (soprano); Nannetta – Eugenia Ratti (soprano); Meg Page – Fernanda Cadoni (mezzo); Mistress Quickly – Oralia Dominguez (contralto)
Glyndebourne Opera Chorus; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. Edinburgh Festival, 25 August 1955
no text or translations included
ICA ICAC 5061 [58:15 + 67:04]

There is a small but important group of operas that are essentially ensemble works, and in which the presence of a few star singers is less important than the quality of the team as a whole. Die Meistersinger, From the House of the Dead and Peter Grimes are prime examples but surely Falstaff comes at the top of the list. Everyone involved, including the chorus and orchestra as well as the many smaller parts, needs to be aware of their part in the work as a whole and in the chosen approach. If this is the case any small weaknesses in the main parts can easily be forgiven and the nature of the work can be triumphantly realised. That is surely the ambition of any opera company serious about its task, and is clearly the case here. I would not want to suggest that the present set is superior to all its many distinguished predecessors but it is certainly another vindication of the importance of ensemble in opera.
Glyndebourne took its productions to the early Edinburgh Festivals right from the first Festival in 1947 onwards. In 1955 it took Falstaff in a production originally intended to be conducted by Vittorio Gui but taken over by Giulini when the former became unwell. A later Glyndebourne version of the opera conducted by Gui with Geraint Evans, the original choice as Ford, has now been released on Glyndebourne’s own label. The usual very thorough rehearsal which has always been a feature of this company’s work is especially relevant to this opera. The result is a single-minded approach to its musical and dramatic character that is very striking. Whether this is due to the conductor’s efforts, to the long rehearsals or to careful casting I do not know but the result is a real overall success.
The individual casting is admirable. Fernando Corena’s recordings of buffo music by Donizetti and Cimarosa had shown his ability in this field. It is surprising that this production appears to have been his first performances as Falstaff. The part is often given to a baritone but a bass voice does have the advantage of suggesting the character’s scale without needing to resort to “funny” voices. He does not play with the words in quite the detailed way of, say, Tito Gobbi or Geraint Evans, but instead he exudes a more general good humour. I found it wholly convincing, especially when set within a cast all of whom display their character’s individual “humours” musically and without exaggeration. Walter Monachesi has a voice very different from Corena’s, which helps a lot in their scene together, and if the Merry Wives are not so well distinguished from each other, neither are they in most performances of the opera or indeed in Shakespeare. The role of Mistress Quickly is a gift for a singer with the necessary power in the lower register and ability of characterisation. Oralia Dominguez has both of these qualities and stands out even in such distinguished company. All of the other, by no means minor, parts are well filled. One oddity is that Kevin Miller takes over in Act 3 from Juan Oncina as Fenton. He may lack the same lyrical beauty of voice but there is no serious loss.
As I explained earlier, it is the quality of the ensemble that distinguishes this recording. All of the big complicated ensembles which can sound simply confused or untidy are here clear and transparent. Even with a recording which is adequate for a broadcast of the period but little more there is no real loss to the music. There are occasional stage noises, including what is probably the prompter at times, and some obtrusive applause but this simply makes the listener even more aware of what must have been a tremendous theatrical occasion. There is no libretto or even a synopsis which is regrettable but understandable in a version likely to appeal mainly to collectors who have more modern versions in their collections already. I would happily have exchanged the seven pages of listing of the ICA catalogue for more pictures of the original production - or indeed a more detailed description of it.
There are many distinguished recordings of Falstaff in the catalogue, including those conducted by Karajan (with Gobbi), Toscanini, and (some years later) Giulini in Los Angeles. The present set takes its place with them, like them offering hours of pleasure and delight. If the opera has a lesson it is the composer and librettist’s sheer delight in the varied character of humanity and its many frailties. This recording captures that varied character to perfection in a wonderfully relaxed and good humoured performance in which nearly everything seemed to have gone right.
John Sheppard

A wonderfully relaxed and good humoured performance in which nearly everything seemed to have gone right.