VERDI Falstaff – Davis
By all accounts the performances in May this year 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 is not so easily defined. It isn’t the applause and occasional chuckles, though they help (comedy abhors a vacuum). It isn’t even quite the sense that, despite this being a concert rather than a staged event, the cast are performing entirely in character, and that they are 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. And some, perhaps much, of this must emanate from the maestro, who has every right to take pride in a brilliant achievement.
He recorded the opera in Munich in 1991 with what in most respects is a more impressive company of singers. The enemy there is a too-reverberant acoustic which takes the point off wit’s pencil. The Barbican acoustic is clear and bright; the rhythms are more lightly sprung, the details stand out more sharply.
Davis’s previous Falstaff was the veteran – and surprisingly monochromatic – Rolando Panerai. Michele Pertusi may lack Tito Gobbi’s expressive resources, but he nevertheless has plenty of variety to offer. And, whereas with Bryn Terfel in the recent Abbado recording there is a sense of Falstaff in the make-up room (at one moment he’s there, large as life in the mirror, at another it’s the actor), Pertusi is Falstaff through and through. 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, less fruity than some but also better integrated into the ensemble than the riper plum-pudding dames who get the big laughs. If there is a weak link it is in the Fords, Master and Mistress: Ana Ibarra has not the refulgent tone to make the most of Alice’s broad phrases, and Carlos Alvarez, powerful and opulent as his voice is, is both vocally and dramatically less polished than his predecessor with Davis, Alan Titus.
The performance as a whole carries these limitations along: it captures the spirit of the work, its joy and comprehensive generosity (‘Tutto il mondo è burla’), so fully that the sourer notes of criticism are essentially wrong notes. Falstaff has been well served on records ever since Toscanini set the standard high in 1950, and I still find most satisfaction in the Karajan-Gobbi set of 1956. But I can’t think of any version in which the orchestra play with more evident appreciation of the comedy on stage – it’s almost as though the members of the LSO know the libretto by heart. Among recordings of the past 30 years or so this bids to become a firm favourite.