Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Falstaff (1883)
Sir Geraint Evans, baritone – Falstaff; Mariella Angioletto, soprano – Alice Ford; Josephine Barstow, mezzo-soprano – Meg Page; Regina Resnik, mezzo-soprano – Mistress Quickly; John Shaw, baritone – Ford; Mirella Freni, soprano – Anne Page; Luigi Alva, tenor – Fenton; John Lanigan, tenor – Dr Caius; Robert Bowman, tenor – Bardolph; Michael Langdon, bass – Pistol
Covent Garden Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. Covent Garden, London, 12 May 1961 PRISTINE AUDIO PACO170 [58.57 + 69.17]
Sir Geraint Evans’s performance of Falstaff, in one of the glorious stalwarts of the Covent Garden repertory in the 1950s and 1960s, is already enshrined on an exceptionally well-cast commercial recording conducted by Sir Georg Solti (at the time musical director of the resident company) originally made for RCA but subsequently issued on Decca and long regarded as one of the greatest performances of Verdi’s swansong available on record. Oddly enough, at much the same time Decca made an additional recording of highlights from the opera featuring many other Covent Garden regulars, but starring Fernando Corena in the title role although it was conducted by Sir Edward Downes, at that time a staff conductor at the house.
This live performance from 1961 combines elements from both those commercial recordings: the singers of the title role, Anne and Dr Caius also feature on the Solti set, while the Mistress Quickly, Bardolph, Pistol and Fenton similarly are to be heard on the Downes disc. Two of the other singers in this performance, John Shaw and Josephine Veasey, were both regulars at Covent Garden in this period and the latter in particular can be heard in many other roles on disc. There is only one real enigma among the cast, Mariella Angioletti (misspelled as Angioletto on the box cover) in the role of Alice Ford which was more or less owned on international stages at the time by Ilva Ligabue (who appeared not only in the Solti set but also in Bernstein’s Vienna recording of some years later). The booklet note here describes Angioletti as “little-known” – and indeed she is otherwise known on disc solely for her appearance as Lisa in a live Callas recording of La Sonnambula from Cologne in 1957; she also appeared in Verdi’s Aroldo in a 1959 performance at the Wexford Festival conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. She seems decidedly over-parted in the role, overshadowed by the rest of the cast on stage and outsung by her fellow conspirators. She also sounds rather blowsy in the delivery of her final line in Act One.
For the rest of the cast, I am sorry to say that they are done little favours by the sound on this recording of the BBC relayed broadcast – especially when most of them can be heard already in vivid stereo on the two Decca recordings in which they participate. Solti’s conducting of the score has come in for a share of criticism from some quarters as being noisy. It is true that at this early stage of his career he could give Verdi’s brass their head in a manner that could be regarded as vulgar, as I observed a couple of months ago when reviewing a reissue of his RCA Aida; but Carlo Maria Guilini, who had scored such a success at Covent Garden three years before this performance with his Don Carlo, can hardly be said to be any more subtle here. Whether it is the broadcast sound picked up the BBC microphones or not, there are many passages when the orchestra simply drowns the singers practically out of earshot and in the earlier parts of Act One, when the orchestra are more subdued or less warmed up (this I recall as being a not infrequent problem with these players at the beginning of Royal Opera performances in the 1960s), there is another difficulty with noise. It sounds as though the production, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, involved a considerable number of extras involved in the creation of background hubbub, and this only subsides as Falstaff launches into his Onore! monologue. On the other hand, it could simply be that the BBC microphones were picking up ambient sounds from elsewhere, and there are certainly a number of thumps and clunks deriving from the action on stage. Those allergic to such things may also note that the audience are enthusiastic, not only interrupting musical passages with applause but also laughing at various unexplained bits of ‘stage business’ – at which Sir Geraint was a master. When one considers how many modern productions of Falstaff go out of their way to subvert the humour, one might on the other hand well be grateful for an attempt to realise Verdi’s intentions.
And there are of course passages here that come over superbly. The dialogue between Falstaff and Mistress Quickly at the Garter Inn is wonderfully realised by the legendary pairing of Sir Geraint and Regina Resnik, who never (as far as I know) otherwise recorded this scene together except on a long-extinct English-language TV production from the 1970s and an even rarer American black-and-white TV clip from 1964. The picture on the front cover of this release clearly shows how much both are enjoying themselves. The very young Mirella Freni making her Covent Garden début delivers her summons to the fairies in Scene Six with beautiful delicacy, although she was better and even more atmospherically served by the engineers on the Solti recording a couple of years later. John Shaw is a particularly vehement Ford in his trenchant delivery of his ‘Jealousy Aria’; he was known at Covent Garden for roles such as Iago and Scarpia, although his commercial recordings were few. As usual with Pristine, notes are minimal; and the addition of the opening and closing BBC announcements (totalling some three minutes) give the whole a decidedly period flavour.
Those wishing to have a souvenir of these performances, or wishing to augment a sheaf of other recordings of Falstaff, will find this set a decided improvement on earlier pirated transfers (presumably coming from the same source), with the sound clearer than in many other live recordings of this vintage – even if this can be a mixed blessing. Tracking information is sensible and generous.
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