A brilliant and evocative performance
Mike Birman | Brooklyn, New York USA | 12/05/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I've always considered Von Karajan's classic 1956 recording of Falstaff (available from EMI and remastered as one of their "Great Recordings of the Century") with Tito Gobbi in the title role, and featuring a cast that includes Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nan Merriman and Anna Moffo, as the finest version available. This DVD of the 1979 film shot in Berlin's BUFA studios on 35mm film and directed by Gotz Friedrich, which I had never seen before, may be a nearly comparable performance! Frankly, I was not expecting much when I first popped the DVD into my player. Sir Georg Solti has occasionally struck me as a rather four-square conductor (though not with that pedestrian streak someone like Zubin Mehta frequently exhibits). Solti can be great in a justifiably lauded performance, then lapse into an uninspired (yet never bad!) interpretation. His Elektra with Nilsson is (forgive me) electrifying, so I knew he was capable of such magnificence. But I was not prepared for this!
This performance, and the film that documents it, is superb! From its comically vulgar opening in the Garter Inn, where we are introduced to a rotund (and slightly pathetic) Falstaff - in a richly nuanced performance by baritone Gabriel Bacquier cocooned in prosthetic girth (his face is too thin for the enormity to be real) - to the supremely beautiful nocturnal magic of the Finale in Windsor Park, Solti is lovingly accompanied by the sublime Vienna Philharmonic. They play with such delicacy and elan what is an undeniably delicate score, that I lost myself in the instrumentation, forgot it was Verdi, thought it was Mozart, and couldn't remember which Mozartean Opera this was. That is high praise indeed, given my intense love for the divinely gifted Composer from Salzburg! The woodwinds and strings are singled out for special praise: perfect intonation and phrasing doesn't begin to do them justice. They breathe life into this score, propel it forward, act as a Chorus commenting on the action. If you never understood why all the fuss over this band, listen here. You'll get the idea!
The cast is uniformly good. Richard Stilwell is Ford, Alice's husband. The young lovers are played by Max-Rene Cosotti as Fenton, a role he has played at Glyndebourne, and a lovely Jutta-Renate Ihloff as Nanetta, the daughter of Alice and Ford. Alice is sung by Karan Armstrong. As I listen to "Alfin t'ho colto, raggiante fior" from part two, sung by Falstaff and Alice in Ford's house, I can hear, for the very first time, small musical phrases quoting from Wagner's "Die Meistersinger". That is a particularly stark example of the clarity of this performance!
The rest of the cast includes John Lanigan as Dr. Cajus. Peter Maus and Ulrik Cold (Sarastro in Ingmar Bergman's Magic Flute!) are the disreputable comic foils Bardolfo and Pistola. The ravishing Swedish Mezzo Sylvia Lindenstrand is more than just eye candy as Meg Page. Mrs. Quickly is Marta Szirmay. The cast can act as well as sing, superbly presenting both drama and music. The sets evoke an entire Elizabethan neighborhood, not just a cramped room. You feel immersed in the staging. The costumes are evocative; rag-like on the unfortunate Falstaff and his friends, suitably upwardly-mobile as the cast's social status rises.
The only jarring note, at least for me, is the spoken narration (in German) between scenes. It slowed the drama's forward propulsion, subtracting from the suspension of disbelief, but only slightly. I got used to it quickly. I must emphasize the sheer beauty and wistfulness of the Finale. It symbolically closes two lives (Falstaff and Verdi), two eras (Elizabethan and Romantic) as well as this Opera. It is lovingly staged and performed here. This is a brilliant DVD. It is now one of my favorites in the format and one of my two or three favorite performances of Falstaff. My highest possible recommendation!