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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff - commedia lirica in three acts (1893)
Sir John Falstaff, an old roué - Ambrogio Maestri (baritone); Alice Ford, a lady of Windsor - Svetla Vassileva (soprano); Ford, her husband - Luca Salsa (baritone); Meg Page, another lady of Windsor and friend of Alice - Daniella Pini (mezzo); Mistress Quickly, a companion of the Windsor ladies - Romina Tomasoni (mezzo); Nannetta, Alice’s daughter - Barbara Bargnesi (soprano); Fenton, enamoured of Nannetta - Antonio Gandía (tenor); Pistol, a crony of Falstaff - Mattia Denti (bass); Bardolfo, another hanger-on around Falstaff - Patrizio Saudelli (tenor); Dr. Caius, innkeeper - Luca Casalin (tenor)
Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Regio di Parma/Andrea Battistoni
rec. live, Teatro Farnese, Parma, 10, 12, 15, 22, 25 October 2011
Stage Director: Stephen Medcalf
Sets and Costumes: Jamie Vartan
Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
Filmed in 1081i HD 16:9
Sound formats PCM stereo, DTS-HD MA 5
Introductory essay and synopsis in English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean
Also available as a DVD
C MAJOR Blu-ray 725304 [131:00 + 11:00 (bonus)]

This Falstaff is the last in the line that C Major calls Tutto Verdi, meaning all Verdi, and is numbered twenty-six. This series is intended to mark the bicentenary of the birth of the man who came to be called “The glory of Italy”. It also includes a performance of The Requiem.
As I have reminded readers in the majority of the previous instalments, the number twenty-six is not the whole truth as there are in fact twenty-eight titles in the Verdi oeuvre. The difference between the two numbers being rewrites of two earlier works, I Lombardi and Stiffelio, each with significant alterations and additions. It must also be recognised that a number of Verdi’s works, notably Macbeth, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlos and, to a lesser extent La Forza del Destino, all had major rewrites but their titles did not change. In this series it is the second version of each of those other operas that has been included. 

Falstaff was the culmination of Verdi’s long career as an opera composer. He had talked of retirement after the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera in 1858 and believed that he had laid down his compositional pen after Aida in 1871. Nearly a decade later, persuaded by his publisher, he embarked on rewriting Simon Boccanegra, premiered in 1857. This involved his working with Arrigo Boito, an accomplished librettist and also a composer; it was an association Verdi came to relish. The revised Boccanegra was a success at La Scala in 1881 and showed that even at the age of 68 Verdi’s inner genius was alive and well. Ricordi and Boito subtly pointed Verdi towards Shakespeare’s Otello. Verdi loved and revered Shakespeare above any other poet. Slowly, via constant personal contact and communication, Otello was written. It was premiered at La Scala, six years after the revised Boccanegra. Verdi was then 74 years of age and thought that he had finished operatic composition. He had not allowed for Boito. Three years after the premiere of Otello Verdi wrote to a friend “What can I tell you? I’ve wanted to write a comic opera for forty years, and I’ve known The Merry Wives of Windsor for fifty… however, the usual buts and I don’t know if I will ever finish it … I am enjoying myself.” Boito’s vital contribution in enabling Verdi to match Shakespeare was in his capacity for drawing out a taut libretto from the plays concerned. Boito reduced Otello by six sevenths and in Falstaff he reduces the twenty-three characters in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor to just ten. Verdi wrote Falstaff, his third opera based on Shakespeare, for his own enjoyment. Inevitably during its composition his mind must have wandered back to the tragic death of his wife and children, circumstances that surrounded the failure of his only other comic opera, Il Giorno di Regno, at La Scala in 1840 (review). With Falstaff, the outcome was utterly different. Verdi’s final opera, “my little enjoyment” as he called it, was all he could have hoped for and was a triumph at its premiere at La Scala on 9 February 1893. The greatest Italian composer ever was eighty years of age. It was a magnificent culmination to a great career as an opera composer.
The musical form of Falstaff follows that of Otello. There is no turning back to the old structures of the great middle period trio of Rigoletto, La Traviata and Il Trovatore with recitative and cabalettas. The music is in constant motion, albeit not wholly seamlessly as there are arias to go along with the concerted ensembles. Verdi’s orchestration in Falstaff, with its final fugue, presents challenges to even the best of conductors having a natural feel for the Verdian melodic line and idiom. In this performance, the young conductor Andrea Battistoni, the new Principal Guest at Parma, brings the strands of the music together adequately, allowing the plentiful humour in the music to flow. It points to a good future for him.
Like the Requiem in this Tutto Verdi series (review), this performance takes place in the Teatro Farnese, Parma. This beautiful building was designed by Giovanni Aleotti and built in 1617-18 on the first floor of the Palazzo della Pilotta in Parma. It opened in 1628, and whilst destroyed during World War 2, it was reconstructed in perfect detail between 1956 and 1962. It seats several thousand spectators on benches. There are views of this wonderful setting at the opening of the disc. However, for audiences the overall acoustic was anything but ideal. This may account for the singer-dominated, but rather flat recording here. It lacks presence.
The costumes are in-period although I doubt that Falstaff’s page would go around in a suit of armour. The simple panelled set is dominated by Falstaff’s bed. He is wheeled back and forth from time to time. The set for Ford’s house is apt and allows us to see the laundry basket tipped and a flash of Falstaff, or at least a costume, descend into the Thames. However, I have seen the set for the final scene at Hermes Oak, and the general revelations therein, far more imaginatively done.
The singing cast in this performance is led by Ambrogio Maestri in the title role. He might justifiably be described as the Falstaff “de nos jours”having sung the role over two hundred times. His interpretation is to be seen in the historical-based production that was recorded in the small Teatro Verdi in Busseto in 2001 and conducted by Muti with La Scala forces (EuroArts 2051728). A very good supporting cast includes Juan Diego Florez, Roberto Frontali, Barbara Fritolli and Inva Mula. The small Busseto theatre is the venue of some of the performances in this Tutto Verdi series. Maestri also features in an updated version from Zurich recorded in 2011 (review) and also sings the role in the 2012 production by Peter Carsen first seen at Covent Garden in May 2012 and shared with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and La Scala. The Carsen production updates the action to the 1950s with Maestri singing in at least the first of those two venues. With Covent Garden owning the Opus Arte label and the 14 September 2013 New York performance being relayed live as part of the Met’s annual programme, it is likely that one or both will appear in video format. The New York production is one of the three to be conducted by Levine in his first season back at the helm in New York after a near three-year interregnum following his injury. He conducts from a special wheelchair in an adapted podium from which he acknowledges the audience at the curtain.
Maestri’s physical size, in both girth and height, fit him for the title role like a glove. His true Italian baritone voice must be something like that which the composer envisaged. Unlike some bass-baritones who sing the role, he can still float some sotto voce vocal moments. I suppose his familiarity with the role means he adds rather a lot of little bits into his acting, but none are misplaced or detract from what is a consummate interpretation.
Baritone Luca Salsi acts the role of Ford, the husband Falstaff hopes to cuckold and then filch his money. He sings strongly, particularly in Ford’s monologue (CH.13). As his wife, Bulgarian Svetla Vassileva who features in Giovanna D’Arco (review) and La Traviata (review) in this series, although trim and attractive of figure has neither the requisite fullness nor the steadiness of voice. Her colleague in plotting Falstaff’s downfall, and also his second planned seduction, Daniella Pini as Meg Page acts well and sings adequately. As Nannetta the young lyric soprano Barbara Bargnesi floats some nice notes, particularly in the last scene (CH.27). Antonio Gandía as her lover Fenton, whilst not in the Florez class of light tenor, convinces with his acting. Romina Tomasoni as Mistress Quickly sings with a smooth legato. Regrettably she lacks those essential fruity lower notes for those ingratiating Reverenzas with which Quickly greets Falstaff (CH.10).
For those who like a fuller and deeper bass-baritone in the title role, I find Bryn Terfel perfect, but he only features in a turn-of-the-1990s multi-coloured Covent Garden production that I personally find frustrating (Opus Arte). However, he appeared in a refreshed and reprised traditional production by Peter Stein at Welsh National Opera in the spring of 2008 (review). A performance was filmed and later broadcast on Welsh language television but unaccountably has never had wider circulation.  

Robert J Farr