For many years now‚ most important opera recordings have been identified by their conductors (Karajan’s this and Solti’s that)‚ but I should think it quite likely that this will be ‘Terfel’s Falstaff’. That would be no reflection on the work of the conductor‚ orchestra and cast as a whole; but Terfel is a singer who has caught the imagination‚ and it does not take much imagination to see him as a remarkable Falstaff. In the event‚ I wonder whether those who most readily respond to the idea (of ‘Terfel’s Falstaff’) will find it quite as they expected. On the stage he is so charismatic and ‘his goodly fabric does so fill the eye’ that he would dominate even if Verdi had not written such a dominant part. The impression there is more or less what one expects – the tun of man who is also a funnyman‚ a rogue but a lovable one‚ and of course a powerful singer to boot. On records it is rather different.
In the two monologues‚ for instance‚ he sometimes allows us to see him‚ as it were‚ without the makeup. In the ‘honour’ solo‚ the line about putting aside the fear of God seems quite serious or factual‚ not even partly a joke. In the tavern scene in Act 3‚ ‘Have I lived so many year…to be carried in a basket and thrown into the water’ is a ‘sensible’ reflection by a man who is not at this moment a joke at all. A good deal‚ for and against‚ could be said about this‚ but the immediate point is that it may not be what people expect – and want. On stage we see him (so there is visual continuity); on records we hear‚ momentarily‚ somebody different.
How important this is I’m not quite sure; such moments pass and there’s plenty else to listen to. This is a wellcast recording (much better than the recent one under Gardiner with its vocally illfocused Falstaff). The wives are excellent‚ especially Larissa Diadkova as Quickly‚ and the Nannetta‚ Dorothea Röschmann‚ is among the best of all. Thomas Hampson as Ford is perhaps not such a good idea – his voice doesn’t have a mean streak in it. But the comics do well and the interesting Daniil Shtoda is a distinctive Fenton. What I’m afraid I found repeatedly in making comparisons was that this array of talent is recorded with little sense of presence compared to their predecessors‚ most notably those of the Karajan/Gobbi set of 1956 and the Solti/Evans of 1963. Each return to these was like putting on spectacles and seeing the stage clearly. Or perhaps that is misleading‚ for the aural vision here is clear enough; it’s just rather reduced and remote.
Falstaff is of course a musical score of the rarest quality‚ and you won’t hear it much better sung and played than it is here. The Berlin Philharmonic would be the orchestra of Verdi’s dreams‚ and Abbado conducts with a full appreciation of the wit and tenderness‚ energy and refinement‚ all justly balanced. But in this of all operas it is essential to ‘see’ the stage. The characters must be there before the ears which are your eyes. Otherwise (among other consequences) you don’t get the fun of it‚ and I have to say – I didn’t. It’s better than the Gardiner‚ but‚ as I say‚ each return from either of those to either of the others mentioned above meant reentry to the fun of the fair instead of looking in from over the fence. And if it’s fun we’re talking about – there’s always Toscanini!