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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff (1893) [125.00]
Ambrogio Maestri (baritone) – Falstaff; Fiorenza Cedolins (soprano) – Alice Ford; Massimo Cavaletti (baritone) – Ford; Eleonora Buretto (soprano) – Nanetta; Javier Camarena (tenor) – Fenton; Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo) – Mrs Quickly; Stephanie Houtzeel (mezzo) – Meg Page; Gianluca Sorrentino (tenor) – Bardolfo; Davide Fersini (bass) – Pistola
Vienna Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
rec. Haus für Mozart, Salzburg Festival, August 2013
EUROARTS Blu-ray 2072714 [125.00]

When Shakespeare wrote The merry wives of Windsor, the play from which Boito’s libretto for Falstaff is largely derived, he played fast-and-loose with the historical setting. Whilst the character of Falstaff was firmly rooted in the reign of Henry IV in Shakespeare’s historical plays, in The merry wives he updated the milieu to contemporary Tudor England, inserting a reference to the tune of “Greensleeves” which was not written until the early sixteenth century. So we cannot afford to be too prissily purist about the period in which Falstaff is set, although the traditional scenario is usually interpreted to mean an Elizabethan environment.

Here Damiano Michieletto updates the action — all too predictably in the modern operatic theatre — to a date specified as 2010, and sets it in a retirement home where Falstaff and the rest of the cast are residents: the ‘Casa Verdi’, in fact, as is testified by the shots of the building at the beginning. He takes some time to establish this venue by showing us the residents assembling ready for dinner, and since Verdi was not considerate enough to provide music for such a scene — there is no overture at all, the music plunging directly into the action — we are given some tinkling on an offstage piano. It then becomes evident that we are to understand the whole of what is to follow as a dream of the ageing singer lounging on the sofa who undertakes in his imagination the role of Falstaff. This is reinforced by back projections of his earlier triumphs in the part. The other singers cluster around him, with the merry wives in evidence throughout the opening scene and all the other characters making their presence felt as well.

Now this, apart from the objectionable intrusion of music not by Verdi, is all very well as a dramatic concept; but it does have the unfortunate side-effect of distancing the spectator from the action. It produces a sense of Brechtian alienation which is far removed from Verdi’s earthily corporeal drama. In the opening scene Falstaff is seen holding a copy of the Ricordi vocal score of the opera, from which he sings. This is clearly a fake, since he has the score open at a page which all too obviously is not showing his lines at this point. The producer also opts for the old device of having the singers of Alice and Meg mime along to the falsetto phrases which Falstaff puts into their mouths. This might be acceptable in a dream but makes for a very artificial result. Indeed throughout this production the concept of viewing Falstaff through the lens of a performance mounted by retired singers as a form of reminiscence has a most unfortunate effect. It distances the action from the viewer, quite apart from the confusion lent to the plot by having all the singers interacting with each other regardless of whether they are actually intended to be onstage or not.

Michieletto adds to the sense of alienation by quite deliberately casting his singers against type. The love duet between the young lovers Nanetta and Fenton during the second scene, is doubled by an elderly couple charmingly and rather gormlessly reliving the romantic days of their youth. They then disappear altogether from the action when one might have wished to see how the notion developed. On the other hand, Mistress Quickly, whose music speaks volubly of many days of not altogether respectable matronly pleasures, is visualised as a young and pretty nurse whose functional role seems to be to feed Falstaff with cakes. When Ford appears as Master Brook, he compounds his disguise by travelling in a wheelchair — yes, that old cliché again — only to hop out of it as soon as Falstaff’s back is turned and add yet another layer of falsity to the proceedings. Alice plays her lute for Falstaff on a grand piano, which just sounds wrong – like a Steinway harpsichord, perhaps. In his Third Act monologue Falstaff takes down a portrait of Verdi from the wall and addresses it. During the fairy scene he has a vision of girls from lingerie magazines of the 1950s who then turn into a funeral procession and proceed to pinch him. During the final fugue the characters line up in front of a drop curtain, on which is projected a film of the rest-home residents finding Falstaff drunk and asleep on a sofa clasping a copy of the score. During the final curtain calls, Falstaff suddenly re-emerges in a traditional Elizabethan costume, as if to point up the ironic intention of the production ... and so on. It will be up to the viewer to decide whether these are valuable and interesting insights, or simply excrescences on the surface of the music. I would suggest that most if not all of these ‘ideas’ — some not even original to this production — fall into the latter category rather than the former.

As with so many ‘concept productions’ this is all the more unfortunate as the musical performance itself is generally so good. Zubin Mehta is highly efficient and gets a spirited response from the orchestra, although he misses the sense of mischievous sparkle that Verdi inserted into his wry commentary on the action. The rest of the performing cast, with the exception of an over-parted Bardolph, are fully up to the international standard that you would expect from the Salzburg Festival. Ambrogio Maestri is a characterful fat knight who has all the notes needed in his armoury. Although Massimo Cavaletti has a rather similar voice his delivery of the jealousy monologue is very fine. Fiorenza Cedolins leads the distaff side with distinction, and Eleonora Buratto and Javier Camarena make a convincingly delicate pair of young lovers.

One word of warning about the English subtitles. These do not appear to constitute a singing version but they adopt a rhyming scheme which is very far removed from the courtly poetic cadences of Boito. “When I was a page, I was narrow gauge” sings Falstaff, and the results are far removed from anything that might have crossed the mind of either Shakespeare or Verdi. I could not find any indication exactly who was responsible for this travesty but the sentences often twist reasonable sense in order to obtain their far-fetched rhymes.

Last year I reviewed with considerable enthusiasm a video production of Falstaff from Glyndebourne produced by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and recorded in 1976. Ponnelle’s production too had a plentiful supply of original ideas including the delivery of the final fugue before a drop curtain. The recorded sound on that occasion was no match for this new release. At the same time the Glyndebourne DVD brought us much closer to what Verdi and Boito were actually about when they selected Falstaff for their final collaboration. At the time of that review I observed that Falstaff had been lucky in his appearances on DVD. Indeed most of the issues in the catalogue adhere closely to Boito’s scenario without any sense of the alienation to be found in this new release. On the other hand this Salzburg production might be of interest to those Verdi aficionados who would like to add a totally different and novel realisation to their collections. Those looking for a representation of the opera for their primary enjoyment will find the Glyndebourne version immeasurably more attractive.

Paul Corfield Godfrey