As leading British opera composer of the 19th century, Balfe deserved better than the almost complete indifference that greeted his bicentenary in 2008. “Almost” but fortunately not complete indifference, since the tireless advocacy of his biographer Basil Walsh led in September to the resurrection in Dublin of Balfe’s 1838 Italian opera Falstaff. This mighty impressive recording of that public performance is no more likely to shift allegiance of fans of Verdi’s or Vaughan Williams’s operatic treatment of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor to Balfe than to Nicolai. However, it should have surer and wider appeal today than the melodramatic “with one bound our heroine was free” operas such as The Bohemian Girl for which Balfe is most famed.
Balfe spent almost 10 years of his youth as a singer and composer in Italy, so he was thoroughly acquainted not only with the Italian operatic idiom but also with its leading performers. Falstaff was composed for the best of them – the celebrated “Puritani quartet” of Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini and Lablache – the last of whom was able to play Falstaff “without stuffing”. It’s a score full of good tunes, including one strikingly reminiscent of Henry Russell’s “A Life on the Ocean Wave”, composed across the Atlantic later the same year. From the joyous overture onwards, it’s also a score full of skilfully worked numbers, several of which enjoyed favour on both sides of the English Channel for some years afterwards. The splendid trio for the ladies who receive a love letter from Falstaff (three in this version) has already been recorded by Opera Rara (A/02); but others are no less impressive, including a duet for Ford and Falstaff and solos for Fenton and Mrs Ford. The latter two roles, written for Rubini and Grisi, contain fiendishly challenging writing that at times threatens to defeat Majella Cullagh. However, her final solo – along with that of the wholly admirable Barry Banks – justly receives the most enthusiastic applause of the evening. Altogether the recording is strongly sung and conducted, and it should be essential listening for any lover of Italian opera of its period.