Jorge Fernandez Baca | Lima, Peru | 01/08/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Those who enjoyed the Salzburg's 1982 production conducted by Karajan, will be delighted with this Falstaff from Radiotelevisione italiana (RAI). This is a studio production which in spite of being filmed in black and white in 1956, is far superior to most of the more recent versions now available in DVD, both from a visual and a musical point of view. The list of reasons why a Falstaff lover should buy this DVD is endless. Just to begin we have the presence of the legendary Tulio Seraffin conducting the RAI orchestra, in his usual brilliant style. You will also appreciate a young and fresh Giuseppe Taddei at the prime of his career, singing in a way that can only be compared with Tito Gobbi. Opposite to most modern productions where Falstaff is portrayed as the caricature of a dissolute man, here you can see a human person who morally is neither inferior nor superior to most of us, extraordinarily played by Taddei. Additionally, Rosanna Carteri and Anna Moffo in the roles of Alice Ford and Nanetta, respectively, are a real pleasure not only for the ears but for the eyes. It is hard to see pair of gorgeous women playing those roles and singing like only angels can do. Another attraction is the Peruvian tenor Luigi (Luis) Alva at the very beginning of his career, playing Fenton as nobody else has done until present, not even the also Peruvian Juan Diego Florez. If you compare this DVD with the 2001 Mutti's version you will see the differences between Alva and Florez both in singing and acting. It is worth to remind that Alva, as well as Moffo, also sung in the legendary 1957version conducted by Karajan, beside Tito Gobbi, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Rolando Panerai. Scipione Colombo and Fedora Barbieri are also great in the roles of Ford and Mrs Quickly."
TODD KAY | 07/01/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Expected quaintness and surprising sophistication alternate in this Radiotelevisione Italiana studio film originally telecast 9 May 1956. Following a solo trumpet quotation of a theme we will hear in the opera's final scene, an actor in Elizabethan costume delivers a solemn spoken introduction (in Italian) and identifies cast and crew over a credits scroll. With that hoary start behind him, the esteemed operatic stage director Herbert Graf exceeds expectations in his mining of the possibilities of what was still a new medium in 1956. The sets are what you would expect to see in a traditional, low-budget 1950s TV production of FALSTAFF, but the compositions are clever, and Graf seems to take pleasure in employing techniques that -- while not advanced for cinema -- could not have been effected easily or at all in the theater: Falstaff pontificates and blusters in the foreground as Pistola and Bardolfo cower in the background, and everyone is in focus. One of Falstaff's extended pronouncements is delivered in a slowly uncoiling mirror-shot. When Falstaff is prostrate in the Windsor Park scene, we look up from his point of view to see a representation of a starry night sky, on which the Fairy Queen is superimposed during her song.
Beyond visual enticements, Graf also has a knack for getting the best from his cast: when one singer holds the figurative spotlight, someone off to the side or in the background always seems to have some smart bit of business, reacting or appearing to ponder possible responses. Wherever one chooses to look, there is someone worth watching. There are delicious stage hams in this group (Fedora Barbieri comes immediately to mind), but Graf exercises enough control over the most extroverted of them to create a cohesive ensemble without dampening anyone's fun. And while the work's darker emotions as well as its wistful traces are expertly evoked (not only by Graf but by conductor Tullio Serafin and the cast), "fun" is the key word. There is hardly a moment in the 118 minutes that does not sparkle with love -- love of Verdi, love of singing and acting and entertaining and making music, love of just being alive.
Serafin was approaching 80 when he conducted this performance. He was born in 1878, near the end of the decade in which Verdi had completed AIDA and the Requiem and still had much of his greatest music ahead of him: the final revisions of SIMON BOCCANEGRA and DON CARLO; OTELLO and FALSTAFF; the Four Sacred Pieces. All of the cast members were born in the 1910s through the 1930s, within the first few decades following the composer's death (the youngest, Anna Moffo, was only 20 -- a mere five years younger than her on-stage mother, Rosanna Carteri!). By dint of their period and the sources of their training, one hears here, to a greater degree than in the more recent FALSTAFF videos, a strong stylistic link to Verdi's time; an idiomatic strain and an absence of internationalized homogeneity that we can call, for lack of a better word, Italianata. While much of Serafin's reading is relaxed and genial in the manner of the many EMI opera recordings he made around this time, it occasionally rears up with a bracing fierceness. The concerted passages of Act I Scene 2 are as blazingly fast as any I have ever heard; the cast races to keep up and stay together, but the effect is exhilarating rather than slapdash. FALSTAFF is a work the conductor clearly revered and about which he had much to say. Although the Karajan/EMI audio recording of the same year (with three of the same singers) deserves every bit of its reputation as one of recorded opera's crown jewels, this soundtrack suggests that Serafin could have been handed the baton with no loss in quality. His work really withstands comparison to Karajan and Toscanini; it is one of his finest late-in-life performances, and the orchestral response is splendid.
While I should not like to choose a favorite portrayer of Falstaff -- or even choose among Falstaff's three great exponents of the 1950s, Valdengo, Gobbi, and Taddei -- I could not fault someone for selecting Giuseppe Taddei based on this performance (he continued to sing the role into the 1980s). If he doesn't savor every verbal subtelty like a wine connoisseur in the manner of Gobbi, he does bring a more ample sound to the role. His is a truly fat-voiced Falstaff, and his Sir John is self-satisfied without ever drawing our contempt. Rosanna Carteri, who would retire when still only in her thirties, is a gracious, attractive, and altogether exemplary Alice. By the time she gives her detailed instructions at the end of Act III Scene 1, we really believe she would be smart enough to have all of this mapped out, and determined enough to go to the trouble. Anna Moffo and Luigi Alva repeat (actually, anticipate) their delectable Nannetta/Fenton act from the Karajan recording, and it is a treat to see as well as hear them. A beautiful couple in both sound and appearance, they fairly embody young, ingenuous, impulsive love in all its shimmering promise and its fleeting angst and frustrations. Barbieri is the most old-fashioned of the performers, big and broad in her gestures and not taking much care to make eye contact with her colleagues. She is nevertheless a lovable, authoritative Quickly. If there is a thankless role among the principals, it is, of course, that of Meg Page. Anna Maria Canali upholds her part in ensembles and does what she can to distinguish her solo lines.
The least-known principal, Scipione Colombo as Ford, merits extensive discussion, for he is startlingly good. Colombo sang Miller in the very first complete LUISA MILLER (Cetra, 1951); between that recording and this one, he also made little-known recordings of Scarpia (TOSCA) and Malatesta (DON PASQUALE), both of which elicited superlatives from no less astute a critic than Conrad L. Osborne in the 1993 Met Guide. Indeed, CLO singled out Colombo as the best Malatesta on any complete set made over the six decades from 1932 to 1990. I personally have heard none of the Colombo recordings, but on the basis of this Ford, I look forward to hearing whatever I can from this neglected baritone. He has an attractive middleweight voice; he is a fastidious musician; he colors and weights words with great intelligence; he is a persuasive physical actor, and he even makes a handsome appearance. I have heard no better performance of Ford's jealousy monologue. Halfway through, approximately at "O matrimonio: inferno!" Graf has him look directly into the camera; he delivers the rest of the piece that way, and the effect is chilling. Has this ever seemed literally true before, as indicative of matters of vital importance at stake? If this man never had the opportunity to perform Iago's Credo before an audience, some audience was the poorer for it.
Bad news? Well, yes, unfortunately. The post-sync work is of variable quality; Carteri is in no way convincing in terms of the breadth of the sounds we are hearing versus the dainty things happening with her mouth, and Alva (in Act II Scene 2) mouths several words when Fenton does not even have lines to sing. Worse, the print is in no more than watchable condition. Even by standards of the day, it is heavy with scratches, debris, and other unwelcome artifacts. Worst of all, the soundtrack is sadly faded and damaged. Act I Scene 1 and Act II Scene 2 are the best preserved; every other scene is beset with significant problems; I will only catalog the worst of them: the concluding nonet of Act I Scene 2 keeps threatening to crumble, and ultimately there are several missing measures of music. The first encounter between Quickly and Falstaff features noticeable warping; the pitch keeps drooping and then correcting (sometimes overcorrecting) itself, sounding as if running at incorrect speeds. An early Nannetta/Fenton exchange and all of the conspirators' exchanges at the Garter Inn become heavily muffled, as if a burlap blanket has been thrown over the microphones; this intermittently is the case also in the young lovers' music at Windsor Park. A low electronic hum enters late in the final scene and persists to the end of the opera, and the glorious final fugue takes on a thready, tenuous sound. It would be unfair to blame VAI, a classy outfit with a record of doing its best with challenging source material. There was only so much VAI could do this time, in the face of a half century's ravages.
Lovers of Verdi, of FALSTAFF, and of Italian-opera performers of the 1950s will be grateful to see and hear the performance even with its technical limitations; but the performance is so good that the film's condition is grounds for lament. This should have been protected and preserved as if it were the only extant print of an important Fellini picture, for surely a filmed FALSTAFF with this cast and conductor, of this vintage, is no less vital a part of its country's cultural and artistic heritage. But of course, in 1956 and for years thereafter, only the most farsighted would have foreseen how precious and special and irretrievable this would seem in retrospect -- such music-making was considered an endlessly renewable resource, and it is all too human to take the most precious things for granted. Recommending that great pains be taken to preserve it would be like recommending that sunlight be captured in a jar. One watches and listens with delight, even through the heavy surface murk. At the same time, one is thankful that major singers from the 1970s through the present day -- Domingo, Pavarotti, Freni, Scotto, Milnes, Bruson, Cossotto, Verrett, Ghiaurov, all the way through Netrebko and Villazon and Pape and dozens of others on the scene today -- will be more favorably treated by technology and posterity, so that future generations can see, without great expenditure of tolerance, what made them special. The pleasures of today are the treasures of tomorrow."