Verdi falstaff WS121401

Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
Falstaff (1893)
Sir John Falstaff – Geraint Evans (baritone)
Ford – Robert Merrill (baritone)
Fenton – Alfredo Kraus (tenor)
Dr. Cajus – John Lanigan (tenor)
Bardolfo – Piero de Palma (tenor)
Pistola – Giovanni Foiani (bass)
Alice Ford – Ilva Ligabue (soprano)
Nannetta – Mirella Freni (soprano)
Mistress Quickly – Giulietta Simionato (mezzo-soprano)
Mistress Meg Page – Rosalind Elias (mezzo-soprano)
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma/Georg Solti
rec. 1963, Rome
Libretto not enclosed
Reviewed as download from press preview
Urania WS 121.401 [2 CDs: 115]

Within a ten-year-period in the beginning of the stereo-LP era, there were three complete recordings, plus a highlights disc, of Verdi’s last masterpiece, Falstaff. Since then, there has been a number of further recordings, including Karajan with Giuseppe Taddei, Giulini with Renato Bruson and Abbado with Bryn Terfel, but of none of them has quite been able to outdo the initial trio. They were starrily cast and were conducted by, possibly, the three starriest conductors of the period: Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 1956), Georg Solti (Decca, 1963) and Leonard Bernstein (CBS, 1966). Interestingly Decca also recorded scenes from Falstaff in London under Edward Downes at the same time that Solti set down the complete work in Rome, also with a starry cast. These four recordings in fact overlap in several instances. Thus, Ilva Ligabue sings Alice for Solti, Downes and Bernstein, Regina Resnik is Mrs Quickly for Downes and Bernstein, Rolando Panerai is Ford for both Karajan and Bernstein and Luigi Alva is Fenton for Karajan as well as Downes. All four are excellent in their various surroundings and Ilva Ligabue (1932 – 1998) obviously was the Alice Ford of the 1960s. Besides these three recordings, she set down only the soprano part in Verdi’s Requiem under Giulini on commercial records.

The highlight disc under Downes is first and foremost a tribute to the Swiss buffo bass Fernando Corena, whose recorded legacy overbrims with minor parts in Le nozze di Figaro, Aida, La bohème, Tosca etc, but also major roles like Leporello, Dr Bartolo, Dulcamara and Don Pasquale. He was also a great Falstaff, and supposedly he had hoped to be Solti’s choice for the title role in the recording under consideration, but Solti, or whoever picked the cast, chose Geraint Evans, and as some kind of compensation Decca offered him this hour-long selection, focussing on his major scenes. This is just my theory, of course. However, it is an excellent disc which is a valuable complement to whatever other recording one choses, and it gives an alternative reading of the role, more buffo, more boisterous and down-to-the-earth.  I bought it very early and it has been a dear souvenir which I always have at hand close to my listening equipment.

The three complete recordings – and their respective title characters – also differ quite distinctly. Bernstein, who had at his disposal the Vienna Philharmonic and the forces from the Vienna State Opera, is spirited and lively with a drop of Viennese Gemütlichkeit added to the brew; Solti and the forces from Teatro dell’Opera di Roma – though when the set was first issued it was under the heading “RCA Italiana Orchestra and Chorus” – are more full-blooded Mediterranean and Solti himself adds some Hungarian garlic. Karajan, with the Philharmonia, is a little more subdued and classically restrained, but there is no lack of temperament and the performance fizzes along with great vitality. All the readings are fully worthy of a masterpiece regarded by many as the ultimate comic opera. It is basically an ensemble work, but it is still the reading of the title character, Sir John Falstaff, that has divided the opinion, and in particular it is Bernstein’s fat knight, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who has received the thumbs down from critics. That reaction isn’t unique to this opera, but concerns most of D-F-D’s excursions into Verdian repertoire. His voice is un-Italian, lacks the roundness of tone and, in this case, the “fatness”. There is no sense of girth about the singing. D-F-D was a tall, slim person, and even though he appeared on stage considerably bolstered-up, it is a slim gentleman, not a fat knight, we hear. On the other hand, his textual interpretation is as detailed and pointed as ever, but it is a nobleman in his best years we hear, not an inebriate back-number. Still, I admire him for who he is, not for what he isn’t.

Solti’s Falstaff, Geraint Evans, had already been a renowned interpreter of the role for many years when this recording was made. He was always a rather gruff singer, expressive with words and was the possessor of a darkish bass-baritone with a lot of power in reserve, but if D-F-D was miscast as an urban nobleman, Evans was miscast in the opposite direction: a rural upstart, hardly even belonging to the gentry. That doesn’t imply that he sings and acts badly; he does a good job and he is well worth hearing here, even though his tone is rather dry and uninteresting. He is better in that respect in a live recording from the Glyndebourne Festival 1957 (review).

For a recording that, to my mind, presents an ideal Falstaff, we have to turn to Karajan’s EMI set from 1956, where Tito Gobbi sings the role. He is nobler in his image than Evans, intelligent in the manner of Fischer-Dieskau and still rather boisterous but in a subtler manner. Overall, the Karajan recording is more sophisticated, not least through Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s light-voiced Alice Ford. The rest of the cast is on the same level and it is a special treat to hear Anna Moffo as a lovely Nannetta in her recording debut. The supporting cast in Solti’s recording is superb as well, and among the highlights are Robert Merrill’s impressive Ford, possibly his best recording when it comes to getting under the skin of the character. Giulietta Simionato is possibly the most formidable Mrs Quickly anywhere, and we mustn’t forget the young Mirella Freni’s enchanting Nannetta; how beautifully she sails up in the blue, and how riveting they blend their voices, she and Alfredo Kraus, whose Fenton is a marvel of youthfulness.

It has been said before, by me and my colleagues, that one recording is seldom enough when it comes to the great masterpieces. In my vocabulary the Karajan recording is still hors concours, in spite of today being more than 65 years old, but you need at least one second opinion. Toscanini’s recording from the late 1940s is of course indispensable for historical reasons (he conducted the premiere back in 1893!) but for a “modern” recording with first-class singers you also need Solti. You also need a libretto, and Urania has unfortunately not provided one. An English translation is available here.

Göran Forsling

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