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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff (1893) [123.00]
Donald Gramm (bass) - Falstaff; Kay Griffel (soprano) - Mistress Alice Ford; Reni Penkova (alto) - Mistress Meg Page; Nucci Condò (alto) - Mistress Quickly; Max-René Cosotti (tenor) - Fenton; Elizabeth Gale (soprano) - Nanetta; Benjamin Luxon (baritone) - Ford; John Fryatt (tenor) - Dr Caius; Bernard Dickerson (tenor) - Bardolph; Ugo Trama (bass) - Pistol; Richard Robson (silent) - Page; Graeme Matheson-Bruce (silent) - Host; Paul Jackson (silent) - Falstaff’s page; Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir John Pritchard
rec. Glyndebourne Opera House, 1976
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102 315 [123.00] 

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, the director of this Glyndebourne Festival production, was during the 1970s one of the pioneers of what would become known as ‘concept opera’. By this mean the introduction of additional points of interpretation or viewpoint that were clearly not in the mind of the composer at the time of the original presentation. Working always within the field of his own set designs, the results were often spectacularly beautiful to look at - something which is by no means the case nowadays - and quite often illuminating. Unsurprisingly there are some touches in this production which would have surprised Verdi, not least the performance of the final fugue in front of the house curtain in the manner of a Shakespearean epilogue. The staging of the first duet between Nanetta and Fenton in silhouette - as in Ponnelle’s earlier film of Rossini’s Cenerentola - is in the same category. Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boito went out of his way to simplify the plot of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor when making his adaptation for Verdi. Ponnelle re-introduces the character of Page - as a mute figure always interrupted when he wishes to contribute to the proceedings - as well as enlarging the silent parts of the Host of the Garter Inn and Falstaff’s page boy, giving them plenty to do on stage. none of these additions actually goes against what Verdi put into the music; they are often amusing - especially the gormless but inquisitive page boy - and there are plenty of other directorial touches to delight both the ear and the eye. Some at least of these fall into the category of “Why didn’t anybody think of that before?”
 
The sets, confined as they are by the small stage of the old Glyndebourne opera house, are atmospheric and realistic. The painted backdrops showing scenes across the mediaeval town of Windsor are lovely to look at as well as providing context for the production. The ensemble achieved by the cast, helped by Glyndebourne’s generous rehearsal schedules, is something wonderful to behold. These singers have lived in their roles for long enough that everything comes naturally to them, and there is never the slightest suggestion of exaggerated mugging or hamming for comic effect. The characters take themselves totally seriously, and it is this very ability to behave as if what they were doing was not intended to be humorous that makes their behaviour all the more amusing.
 
The lynchpin of the production, as of any Falstaff, is Donald Gramm as the fat knight. Actually he is not so fat as to be grotesque - one remembers with a shudder Bryn Terfel’s gross stomach at Covent Garden. This Falstaff is trim enough, and young enough, that one can believe he might have been a small slender page boy when he was a teenager. His behaviour towards the other characters is rendered all the more credible when he is seen as a real and credible threat, a scoundrel on the make. His vocal range is not ideal for a Falstaff; he is a bass rather than the baritone that Verdi specified, and he has to take his high G at the end of the Honour monologue down an octave. Otherwise his top register is fine, and the additional weight in the lower end of the spectrum is helpful in assisting him to cut through Verdi’s often thick vocal and orchestral textures.
 
The merry wives are a boisterous and well-matched team. Kay Griffel displays a real sense of Verdian line. One has heard the role of Alice sung with greater richness, but she tops out the ensembles well and looks young enough to be desirable. In fact she looks very little older than her daughter. Elizabeth Gale as Ninetta was a Glyndebourne stalwart in the 1970s, and she sings her aria in the last Act with all the delicacy that one could wish. Nucci Condo as Mistress Quickly is booming and resonant, although her trill on Reverenza! is no better than many. Reni Penkova as Meg slots into the line-up with skill.
 
Benjamin Luxon is caught in this production at the peak of his form. In later years the vibrato in his voice loosened to the extent that it could be accused of being a wobble, but there is no sign of that here. He takes himself properly seriously as a character. Incidentally one notices in his jealous monologue that Verdi indulges himself with what I think must be a unique instance of self-quotation … or is it just a coincidence that the horns play the theme from Philip’s Dormiro sol from the Don Carlos aria (lamenting his suspicions of his wife’s unfaithfulness) just before Ford’s words “Set is the hour, the match is completed”?
 
In the smaller parts - if any part of the ensemble in Falstaff can be called a ‘small part’ - Max-René Cossotto is particularly impressive as Fenton. He sings with perfect delicacy but with a hint of metal in the tone which brings real life to the character. His costume, with his legs and buttocks well displayed in very tight tights, would have defeated many less athletically built opera singers. Those well-known English character tenors John Fryatt and Bernard Dickerson are in their respective elements as Dr Caius and Bardolph, and Ugo Trama is a resonant Pistol. They, like all the singers, are sometimes almost overwhelmed by the weight of the sound coming from the orchestra pit in the old Glyndebourne house. One is grateful that Pritchard resists the temptation to tone down the volume - Verdi’s score needs wholehearted playing - but the balance in the recorded sound could still have been better judged to assist the singers. The recording is described on the box as being in stereo, but Michael Scott Rohan in the Classical Video Guide states that it is mono. There is no obvious evidence either way although the sound from singers at the back of the stage is properly distanced. He describes the performance itself as “splendid”, and with that judgement one must agree wholeheartedly.
 
This is one of the series of Glyndebourne Festival productions that Southern Television so admirably recorded during the 1960s and 1970s. As usual the television producer Dave Heather makes sure that we can see everything that is going on - including one clearly inserted shot of Falstaff looking at his reflection in the water. Once or twice the subtitles go slightly awry (too early or too late), as they did in the original release of this DVD some years back. Also reproduced from the earlier release is a rather odd booklet essay by Sandra Leupold which makes the amazing statement “It is no accident that Falstaff, even today, is not very popular with travelling opera stars. The same can be said for many opera fans …” Well, I may be biased, coming as I do from the part of the world which has produced two of the leading exponents of the role over the last fifty years, but I just don’t think that statement is true “even today” - or indeed, whenever the essay was written.
 
The picture format (4:3) is fine - one doesn’t miss the facility of wide screen with the narrow proscenium of the old Glyndebourne house - the subtitles are legible - with one blip when they turn dark blue for a second. Altogether this re-release is most welcome. Falstaff has been a lucky opera on video, with many recommendable productions available, but this must be counted among the best of them.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey  

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