This opera has always been a favourite of Sir Colin Davis as he showed in several well-remembered performances at Covent Garden. His professed admiration and love of the piece is once more in evidence in this well-nourished and loving performance. With an orchestra that he has trained and developed over the past decade into one of Europe's most reliable and enthusiastic he has investigated a wide variety of music. In this, their most recent adventure, into a Verdian repertory with which the players cannot be all that familiar, they empathize with Sir Colin's care over every facet of the endlessly fascinating score. His liking for the piece often leads Davis into slowish, just occasionally plodding tempos, coming closer in that respect to Giulini's very serious reading for DG, but unlike his predecessor, who also recorded the work when in his sixties, Davis evinces a sense of humour that comes from the inner being, not something laid on from outside the music. It pervades even the more uproarious moments of the score—such as the grand concertato as Ford and his henchmen stalk what they believe to be the cornered Fat Knight. Here, too, helped by RCA's absolutely clear recording, every strand of the argument, vocal and instrumental, is exposed. And that's true of the whole.
By the same token this isn't the most mercurial or light-handed of interpretations. You might try the opening of the second scene of Act 2 in this performance and then compare it with the same passage in the classic Karajan (EMI) set. Davis is lively enough, but Karajan finds an added vitality and wit in the music; so do his singers. The same difference in these readings is evident in many other places where I made my comparisons. Davis is the more vigorous, the more virile of the two, Karajan the more responsive to subtleties in the orchestration and the vocal lines, and correspondingly his cast is more vivid with its words.
Which brings me to the singers on the new set. Panerai, a superb Ford for Karajan, is here the Falstaff. More rotund in voice and presence than Gobbi (EMI), he's less refined and intelligent in his handling of the text. Of course, he is wholly at home with the words and delivers them with relish but he doesn't vary his timbre with anything like Gobbi's care. Try, in both versions, Falstaff's entrance into Ford's house and his attempted seduction of Alice up to the end of the arietta ''Quand' ero paggio'' and you cannot fail to hear what I mean. That said, on its own account Panerai's performance is a lovable and idiomatic one, very much at the centre of things, responsive at every turn to the drama, a suitably complacent, jovial figure at the start, sobered in every sense by his experience at the hands of the merry wives. Even with its owner in his mid sixties, Panerai's voice retains much of its firmness and its old vibrancy, and he puts his experience to good use, just as did the softer-grained Taddei in Karajan's second version (Philips, 12/81—nla).
Titus is no match for Panerai's own Ford for Karajan. Take the passage in the first scene of Act 2, beginning ''C'e a Windsor'' (CD 1, track 21 on the new set) and compare it with the older one: Panerai brings far more character than Titus to Master Brook's apparent inability to make any impression on Alice. In the following aria Titus comes into his own with an intense, keenly projected performance, even if the character remains a shade faceless as was the case with his fellow American Merrill on the Solti/ Decca set.
Falstaff might be termed the first Feminist opera: the women of Windsor twice humiliate Falstaff and also get the better of Ford in upsetting his plans for his daughter who is allowed to marry the man of her, rather than her father's choice. The roles are all projected strongly here. Sharon Sweet is not the most pleasing, vocally, of Alices—that palm goes to Ligabue on the Solti (Decca) set—but she shows plenty of spirit in getting her own way. Quittmeyer makes the most of what little is offered to Meg. As is the way with Quicklys, Horne tends to overplay the part and her tone is far from ingratiating, but she certainly creates a presence. I prefer the far-from-retiring Barbieri (Karajan), who seems to sound the role from within rather than without.
American singers also fill the roles of the young lovers. Julie Kaufmann, whom I have often admired at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, sings her aria as Queen of the Fairies with apt phrasing and pure sound at Davis's slowish speed. Lopardo enhances his growing reputation with a full-voiced and, for the most part, sensitive Fenton. The new pair aren't far behind the ideal standard set by Freni and Kraus (Solti). The veteran Piero de Palma (Dr Caius) still has plenty of voice. The Bardolph and Pistol are well in the picture.
So far I haven't mentioned the ghost of Toscanini who haunts any new venture in this field, most of all one emanating from the same stable. In a sense his version is hors concours because it's in mono and a special historic document. It remains the most inspiriting performance of this wonderful comedy on disc, refined and incisive in execution and effect. It ought to be in every Verdi collection as an adjunct to a more recent one, or—if you're strapped for cash—as sole representative (it comes at medium price). Even the EMI is beginning to sound its age in range of sound and with a noticeable tape hiss. Solti's reading is altogether too bumptious. So if you want a recording of the work, up to date in a nicely balanced and spacious stereo, with only the suspicion of a studio ambience to it, Davis would be a good choice. The very long preparation that went before both the Toscanini and Karajan, the sense of teamwork suggested in both, may never be equalled in this more economy-conscious day, but the old composer's many-faceted masterpiece is here given a loving, very human performance. For that much thanks to Davis et al.'