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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff - Opera in three acts (1893)
Falstaff - Ruggero Raimondi (bass-baritone); Alice Ford - Barbara Frittoli (soprano); Ford - Manuel Lanza (baritone); Meg Page - Laura Polverelli (mezzo); Mistress Quickly - Elena Zilio (alto); Nannetta - Mariola Cantarero (soprano); Fenton - Daniil Shtoda (tenor); Pistol - Luigi Roni (bass); Bardolph - Gianluca Floris (tenor); Dr. Caius - Carlo Bosi (tenor)
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 Longobardo
Sound format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1, LPCM stereo
Picture format: 16:9 anamorphic NTSC
Introductory essay: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107 309 [128:00]

When this was recorded in 2006 it seemed that three singers, Ruggero Raimondi, Bryn Terfel and Ambrogio Maestri, dominated the eponymous role on the international scene. Maestri’s recording from La Scala in 2001 is graced by Juan Diego Florez as Fenton and Roberto Frontali as a strong Ford. As ever in Verdi, Muti on the rostrum is idiomatic and exact to the composer. In Maestri’s later recording from Zurich the cast is not so strong (see review) and is marred by a rather idiosyncratic staging. He is also featured in the Tutto Verdi series from C Major which are mainly focused on Parma performances. This is due for release in the autumn of 2013. Both the earlier recordings featuring Maestri, like this one from Florence in 2006, have Barbara Fritolli as Alice Ford. She is in somewhat fresher voice in the earliest of the three recordings but brings excellent acting and vocalisation to all three.
With age catching up with Raimondi, the other great present day interpreter of Falstaff alongside Ambrogio Maestri, is Bryn Terfel. I fail to understand why Welsh National Opera’s production by the eminent film producer Peter Stein, reprised and refreshed by him in 2005, and featuring Terfel (see review), filmed and later shown on Welsh language TV, has never made it onto DVD. I wondered if the fact that Terfel had been in a Covent Garden performance that did make it onto DVD (BBC/ROH) signalled a contractual restriction. Since then Terfel has been earning plaudits in the Wagner repertoire. Meanwhile Glyndebourne cast Laurent Naouri in the role in 2013. A new name to me, his performance has earned critical acclaim.
In the present performance Raimondi is, as ever, a superb characteriser. His acting skills were recognised by his appearance as Escamillo in 1980s filmed versions of Carmen, now remastered for Blu-ray (2NDBR 4005)and as Don Giovanni. In this performance Raimondi is the eponymous old roué himself. As in those filmed versions his acted portrayal is outstanding. His vocal tone is in good health and well suited to the role with good tonal cover and colour adding to his characterisation. These skills are particularly evident in Falstaff’s solos L’onore! L’adri! (CH.4) and Ehi Taverniere (CH.25). His diction, vocal expression and assumption of character at these points are exemplary. His portrayal can stand comparison with that of both Bryn Terfel in the over-frenetic Covent Garden version and Ambrogio Maestri at La Scala (EuroArts 2051728). As Ford, the husband of Falstaff’s intended seduction, Manuel Lanza sings adequately and is expressive in his monologue (CH.17). Of the other Windsor wife, Laura Polverelli is spirited as Meg Page, a difficult role to bring off. Elena Zilio as Quickly lacks some vocal prowess in the lower regions of the voice evident in her sycophantic Reverenzas. Of the young lovers, Mariola Cantarero looks a little matronly for the role of the young Nannetta but manages to float her lines in the Windsor Forest scene (CH.30). As Fenton, her suitor, Daniil Shtoda has rather too much edge to his tone for my taste. His acting is also rather wooden, his eyes too often on the conductor not his partner, as he declares his love.
Verdi certainly saw his creation as a comic opera, albeit there is more than a savage bite in the humiliation of Falstaff in the last act. In a buffa or comic opera somebody has to get his or her cum-uppance!
This modern staging by Luca Ronconi, with sets by Margherita Palli and costumes by Carlo Maria Diappi, suggests a social context in the relationship between the impoverished, but pretentious aristocracy coming up against the nouveau riche. The Windsor ladies are decked out in floral dresses with handbags and hats to match in an opulent house and garden. Ford is a banker type with 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 portrayal, this updated production works, not something that can be said for all such efforts. 

The eighty-year-old Verdi’s orchestration in Falstaff, with its final fugue, and variations in tempi, mood and modulation -my little enjoyment as he called it” - represents challenges to even the best of conductors. Zubin Mehta is vastly experienced and in his seeming Indian summer allows the music to flow and flourish. I guess we might not get many more Falstaffs from Raimondi. If you are a fan you can do a lot worse than this recording by which to remember his interpretation. It can be put alongside more traditional productions.  

Robert J Farr