The Gramophone Choice
Tito Gobbi (bar) Falstaff Rolando Panerai (bar) Ford Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (sop) Alice Ford Anna Moffo (sop) Nannetta Luigi Alva (ten) Fenton Fedora Barbieri (mez) Mistress Quickly Nan Merriman (mez) Meg Page Tomaso Spataro (ten) Dr Caius Renato Ercolani (ten) Bardolph Nicola Zaccaria (bass) Pistol Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan
EMI Great Recordings of the Century 567083-2 (120' · ADD · S/T/t) Recorded 1956. Buy from Amazon
This Falstaff still stands (with Toscanini) peerless in the catalogue. At its centre stands Tito Gobbi, and his is a presence large enough to encompass both the lord and the jester, the sensuous and the sensual, and the deep seriousness as well as the deep absurdity of his vision. Few Falstaffs have such a measure of the simplicity of his first monosyllables in the bustle around him; few find the poise as well as the confusion within his music. Karajan’s recording is incomparable in its quartet of merry wives.
Schwarzkopf’s Alice radiates both the ‘gioia nell’aria’ and the ‘gioia nel’ cor’ of Verdi’s writing, Fedora Barbieri’s redoubtable Mistress Quickly, with her stentorian cries of ‘Povera donna!’, puts other readings in the shade; Anna Moffo’s Nannetta, perfectly matched in timbre and agility with Luigi Alva’s Fenton, is a constant delight. Above all, it’s their corporate presence that works at such a distinctively higher level. Rolando Panerai is a magnificent Ford; his ‘E sogno? o realtà?’ is a high-point of the performance.
This 1956 recording has been discreetly and skilfully doctored; a little background hiss does remain but one doesn’t actually end up hearing it. This great recording is a-flutter with pungent solo detail, realising, with Nannetta, that the world is ‘tutto delira, sospiro e riso’. The episodes of the opera, its exits and entrances, its subjects and countersubjects, pass with the unique sensibility of Verdi’s final great exuberant fugue of life.
Giuseppe Valdengo (bar) Falstaff Frank Guarrera (bar) Ford Herva Nelli (sop) Alice Ford Teresa Stich-Randall (sop) Nannetta Antonio Madasi (ten) Fenton Cloe Elmo (contr) Mistress Quickly Nan Merriman (mez) Meg Page Gabor Carelli (ten) Dr Caius John Carmen Rossi (ten) Bardolph Norman Scott (bass) Pistol Robert Shaw Chorale; NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini
RCA Gold Seal mono 74321 72372-2 (117' · ADD · T/t). Recorded live 1950. Buy from Amazon
This Falstaff remains, as it always has been, one of the half a dozen greatest opera sets ever recorded. It’s a miracle in every respect. How Toscanini loved Verdi and how he strained every sinew to fulfil this amazing score’s variety in line, feeling and colour. Whether it’s the clarity and discipline of the ensembles, the extraordinary care taken over orchestral detail or the alert control of dynamics, Toscanini is supreme, yet nothing is done for effect’s sake; everything seems natural, inevitable, unforced, as though the score were being created anew before us with chamber-music finesse – and the atmosphere of a live performance adds to the feeling of immediacy. Nobody dares, or seems to want, to interrupt the magic being laid before him. Toscanini in his old age is matching the subtlety and vitality of the composer’s own Indian summer – or one might be tempted to say spring, so delicate and effervescent does the scoring sound.
If, vocally, the main glory is the wonderful sense of ensemble gained through hours of hard rehearsals, individual contributions are almost all rewarding. Indeed, Valdengo’s Falstaff, under Toscanini’s tutelage, has not been surpassed on disc even by Gobbi. Flexibility, charm, exactness, refinement inform his beautifully and wisely sung portrayal. He’s no less pointed and subtle in his encounter with Frank Guarrera’s imposing Ford. Another great joy of the set is the women’s ensemble, their contribution the very epitome of smiling chatter. The Alice, Meg and Nannetta (Stich-Randall – none better), all sound, as they were, fresh and youthful. Herva Nelli is a lively and delightful Alice and Cloe Elmo’s Quickly is as rich and ripe of voice and diction as any on disc, though a trifle coarse at times. The Fenton is sweet and Italianate in tone, but not as stylish as others. The smaller roles are all very much part of the team.
This set should certainly be a source of delightful revelation to a new generation of collectors who may have a wrong-headed view of what Toscanini was about. The remastering gives it clearer, more immediate sound than ever heard before from the originals.
Michele Pertusi (bar) Falstaff Carlos Álvarez (bar) Ford Ana Ibarra (sop) Alice Ford Maria José Moreno (sop) Nannetta Bülent Bezdüz (ten) Fenton Jane Henschel (contr) Mistress Quickly Marina Domashenko (mez) Meg Page Alasdair Elliott (ten) Dr Caius Peter Hoare (ten) Bardolph Darren Jeffery (bass) Pistol London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Colin Davis
LSO Live LSO0055 (119’ · DDD · S/T/t) Recorded live 2004. Buy from Amazon
By all accounts the performances at the Barbican were among the most enjoyable of their kind in London for a long time, and certainly the enjoyment comes across on disc. The ‘how’ of it isn’t so easily defined. It isn’t the applause and occasional chuckles, though they help (comedy abhors a vacuum). It isn’t even that, despite this being a concert rather than a staged event, the cast are performing entirely in character, and that they’re doing so with zest and humorous intelligence. Rather it’s as though a spirit of fun is in the air, breathed in by everyone, including the orchestra, who see the score’s jokes and respond to its wit with the speed of light. Much of this must emanate from the maestro, who has every right to take pride in a brilliant achievement.
Michele Pertusi as Falstaff may lack Tito Gobbi’s expressive resources but he nevertheless has plenty of variety to offer. The grotesque acolytes and preposterous doctor play up well, and the lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, are a charming couple, convincingly young in voice and lyrical in style. Jane Henschel is a strong Mistress Quickly, better integrated into the ensemble than the riper plum-pudding dames who get the big laughs.
Falstaff has been well served on records ever since Toscanini set the standard high in 1950, but in few versions can the orchestra have played with more evident appreciation of the comedy onstage – it’s almost as though the members of the LSO know the libretto by heart. This bids to become a firm favourite.
Ambrogio Maestri (bass-bar) Falstaff Roberto Frontali (bar) Ford Barbara Frittoli (sop) Alice Ford Inva Mula (sop) Nannetta Juan Diego Flórez (ten) Fenton Bernadette Manca di Nissa (contr) Mistress Quickly Anna Caterina Antonacci (mez) Meg Page Ernesto Gavazzi (ten) Dr Caius Paolo Barbacini (ten) Bardolph Luigi Roni (bass) Pistol Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Riccardo Muti
Stage director Ruggero Cappuccio
Video director Pierre Cavasillas
TDK Mediactive DVD DV-OPFAL (118' · 16:9 · 2.0 & 5.1 · 0) Buy from Amazon
This performance derives from a special production of Falstaff at Verdi’s birthplace to mark the centenary of his death. It’s a replica of the staging given in the same theatre, the Teatro Verdi, under Toscanini, in 1913, using facsimiles of the original sets. Some may find the small stage and traditional sets simply old-fashioned but, given a superb cast perceptively directed by Ruggero Cappuccio, what we see and hear is Verdi’s masterpiece presented in the most natural, unforced way, with everyone on stage enjoying themselves. The result is a warm-hearted, unforced reading that makes the rival Graham Vick production at Covent Garden look, by its side, forced and contrived, not to mention the inadequacies of the anti-Verdian Aix production also on DVD. Muti’s masterly traversal of the score – at once prompt yet relaxed – adds to the pleasure.
The cast is headed by Ambrogio Maestri, 31 at the time, who in vocal and physical size is Italy’s answer to Bryn Terfel, Haitink’s Falstaff, and as with Terfel is a youngish man playing the ageing Knight; but Maestri is very much a member of an ensemble, not a star giving his interpretation. He portrays the Fat Knight as still youthful in his outlook and quite nimble afoot. He performs it entirely without Terfel’s (or Vick’s) attempts at vulgar exaggeration: everything emerges from the text and music, and the singing itself is finely modulated and easy on the ear.
He’s surrounded by a group of Merry Wives as ebullient and resourceful as any on audio or video versions. Barbara Frittoli’s scheming Alice is nicely set off against Anna Caterina Antonacci’s witty Meg, while Bernadette Manca di Nissa sings and acts Quickly truly, without the traditional guying of the part. Roberto Frontali’s Ford is much more in character than on the rival version and he parleys perfectly with Maestri’s Falstaff. Juan Diego Flórez and Inva Mula as sweet-voiced and handsome-looking lovers and excellent comprimarios are all part of this highly recommendable DVD. Video direction and sound picture are exemplary.