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Antonio SALIERI (1750-1825)
Falstaff (1799) [145.00]
John del Carlo (bass) - Falstaff; Teresa Ringholz (soprano) - Alice Ford; Richard Croft (tenor) - Ford; Delores Ziegler (mezzo) - Mistress Slender; Jake Gardner (bass) - Slender; Carlos Feller (bass) - Bardolfo; Darla Brooks (soprano) - Betty
Choir of the Theater im Pfalzbau Ludwigshafen
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Arnold Östman
rec. Schwetzingen Festival, 1995
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 4:3
DVD Format: DVD 9 / NTSC
Original Language: Italian
Subtitles: English, German, French, Dutch, Japanese
Region Code: 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102 306 [145.00]

Falstaff was the first of Salieri’s operas to be revived in modern times (1961). It was also the first to be the subject of a commercial studio recording (1986). There is a very good reason for this. The opera buffa style, a close relative of Mozart’s masterpieces in the same genre, sounds generally less dated than Salieri’s worthy but less inspiring opera serie, which had, even during his long lifetime, been eclipsed by greater works by his contemporaries and successors. Also the score contains many vocal and orchestral felicities, which even today can still enchant the ear. Salieri, in his earlier La grotta di Trofonio, had influenced Mozart’s later Don Giovanni in places. Here, having thoroughly absorbed Mozart’s score, Salieri himself shows the beneficial results of acquaintance with it - for example, in his treatment of the relationship between Falstaff and Bardolph, which continually reminds one of Giovanni and Leporello. The music remains a bit short-breathed - at least at the beginning - with plentiful acres of secco recitative including the whole first scene of the Second Act. Even here there are lots of well-considered touches to tickle the palate and keep the listener’s interest alive; try the recitative accompanied by solo cellos while Bardolph is dreaming. After a while the concerted numbers become more substantial, with a First Act finale after Ford’s failure to find Falstaff at his house, which has decided echoes of the similar passage in Don Giovanni. It comes complete with menacing timpani underpinning the ensemble.
 
Treatments of Shakespeare’s The merry wives of Windsor were not new even in Salieri’s day - a now-forgotten setting by Dittersdorf had been produced only three years before Salieri’s score. His efforts have long been overshadowed by later versions of the same material: Nicolai’s Merry wives of Windsor, Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in love and Verdi’s Falstaff are only among the most prominent of these. Vaughan Williams probably comes closest to the Shakespearean original, preserving the Elizabethan milieu with its multitude of sharply observed minor characters. Arrigo Boito, in his libretto for Verdi, makes use of other Falstaff material from Shakespeare’s Henry IV to anchor the action firmly in the period of the early fifteenth century. Shakespeare himself was inconsistent in this respect, since the text of The merry wives of Windsor contains a number of contemporary Elizabethan references. We tend to miss the significance today of Falstaff, a knight of the realm, being shown consorting with a collection of various low-life companions. In the period of Henry IV, only a generation after the social trauma of the Peasants’ Revolt, this would have been regarded as really shocking in a manner that even in Shakespeare’s own day was already becoming obsolete. Prospero Defranchesci’s Italian text for Salieri eliminates a great deal of the Shakespearean sub-plots including the tribulations of the young lovers Nanetta and Fenton and Nanetta’s various suitors, as well as Mistress Quickly. The production here updates the staging to the early nineteenth century without doing any significant damage to what remains of the timeless action.
 
Michael Hampe is, as always, a model of taste and discretion in his direction in the basic but satisfactory sets (by Carlo Tommasi), never stepping outside the bounds of the scenario envisioned by the composer but bringing plenty of nice touches to its realisation. Take as an example the difficulties encountered by Falstaff in writing his letters to the wives when the candles keep going out. These touches are generally received in stony silence by the rather unresponsive audience. The only point at which we get a real laugh from them is in the superbly comic scene where Mistress Ford, disguised as an old German woman, comes to Falstaff to arrange their rendezvous - taking over the role of Mistress Quickly. Their continual banter, veering wildly between German and Italian (substituting for English), has some overtones of The magic flute but also possesses a zany idiocy which is quite its own.
 
The casting has not a single weak link. The then young John del Carlo is a magnificent fat knight, brimming with self-confidence and showing a real sense of danger as well as fatuousness. As the merry wives, Teresa Ringholz and Delores Ziegler make a stunning pair of conspirators, striking plenty of sparks off each other and their husbands. Richard Croft displays plenty of bravura as Ford, not least in his ‘jealousy monologue’ which begins as highly dramatic accompanied recitative and then develops into a barnstorming aria with clarinet obbligato. Jake Gardner is equally good as Slender - here taking over the role of Page - the husband whose belief in his wife’s fidelity forms a dramatic contrast to the less trusting Ford and gives a whole new dimension to the plot. The character of Betty combines elements of Nanetta and Mistress Quickly, and is given a lively performance by Darla Brooks. Carlos Feller is a nicely curmudgeonly Bardolfo.
 
Incidentally the scenario gives us Falstaff’s second visit to Ford’s house - found in Shakespeare but omitted by both Verdi and Vaughan Williams - where he has to effect an escape by disguising himself as an old spinster. This is dramatically redundant but it helps to bring more substance to the Second Act which would otherwise be perilously short on incident; Salieri packs the whole of Verdi’s first two Acts into one. Indeed there is a considerable element of musical redundancy in the Second Act as well, since we get a repeat of Ford’s disguised visit to Falstaff complete with a second and less effective ‘jealousy’ aria. Ford raids his own house twice in search of the unwelcome suitor, and Mistress Ford pays a second visit to Falstaff in the disguise of a German woman. The last scene opens with an aria on the subject of jealousy and its dangers from Slender which has distinct echoes of Figaro’s similar nocturnal aria in the last Act of Mozart’s opera, but without Mozart’s horns - which would seem to be almost de rigueur when cuckoldry is in the air - it falls rather flat. Salieri also misses a trick with the final scene around Herne’s Oak, where he does not indulge himself to any great extent with the expected ‘fairy’ music - although there is a curious pre-echo of Verdi in Falstaff’s cries of pain when he is being pinched by the spirits. On the other hand Salieri scores a palpable hit with his delightfully sly pay-off at the end of the final ensemble, leaving Falstaff to finish the singing by himself in a highly original touch. Salieri’s manuscript score is available from the ISMLP site, but it is a massive file to download and of dubious legibility. So far as I can tell, we are given the musical text without any cuts.
 
The television picture is only available in the old ‘square-screen’ ratio of 4:3, which may be disconcerting for some viewers. The English subtitles by Mitch Cohen, rather sparse, are rhymed throughout but do not appear to constitute a singing translation, which seems rather odd. In any event they give enough of the flavour of the text to allow for ready comprehension of the action when supplemented by the extensive synopsis given in the booklet. Some of the rhymes are far-fetched (“ridiculous” and “periculous” indeed) and occasionally modernisms such as “yucky” grate. However, as a version of Salieri’s Falstaff this is a real comedy, musically and dramatically realised to the best possible effect. The music comes through with real strength, even the influences of Mozart fully absorbed into the whole and packing a superb punch. The recorded sound, slightly forward and using modern instruments, has plenty of body and the continuo is imaginatively realised by an undeservedly anonymous fortepiano player. I particularly liked the way in which he or she opens the Second Act by playing the first chord several times over before the singers, laughing at Falstaff’s discomfiture, actually take any notice of the fact.
 
The original Hungaroton LPs, of which I have a copy, have plenty of life but the singing is considerably better in the performance under consideration here. That recording apparently made the transfer from LP to CD (Hungaroton HCD12789-91), but it appears to have disappeared from the current catalogue. If you want the score with period instruments, there is an alternative recording from Jean-Claude Malgoire (Dynamic CDS4051/2), which I have not heard; and the 1961 revival which first brought Falstaff back to the stage in modern times has also made its way onto a CD transfer, in what other reviewers have described as fairly antique sound. On the other hand, there are no other DVDs of Salieri’s Falstaff currently available; and this recording and performance give the score as good a performance as you are likely to hear in any medium, and in a thoroughly acceptable production. The score is very nearly as good as Mozart, too, well worth investigation.
 
You will notice, I hope - if you have got this far - that I have managed in this review to get right to the end without even mentioning the fable that Salieri poisoned Mozart. Oh, damn …
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey
 


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