Verdi
Falstaff
Falstaff – Michele Pertusi
Ford – Carlos Alvarez
Fenton – Bülent Bezdüz
Dr Caius – Alasdair Elliott
Bardolfo – Peter Hoare
Pistola – Darren Jeffrey
Alice Ford – Ana Ibarra
Nannetta – Maria Josè Moreno
Mistress Quickly – Jane Henschel
Meg Page – Marina Domaschenko

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Recorded at concert performances on 17, 20 & 23 May 2004, Barbican Hall, London
CD No: LSO LIVE
LSO0055 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 59 minutes
Reviewed: October 2004
Verdi's Falstaff, the composer's operatic swansong, is surely an unprecedented – and almost certainly unsurpassed – expression of musical joie de vivre from one who was an octogenarian when the opera reached the Milan stage in 1893. It is, above all, a celebration. A celebration of love and life with its quixotic ups and downs, and a necessary reminder that all will be well in the end – provided we don't take everything too seriously.
In this latest release from LSO Live, Sir Colin Davis conducts his second recorded Falstaff. His earlier – on RCA – was a studio affair and often sounded somewhat earthbound, in spite of some interesting casting.
Here, Davis himself sounds quite rejuvenated, igniting the work with evident affection, judging tempos superbly, and encouraging a febrile response from cast and players. The LSO audibly delight in its operatic outing, and the orchestral playing is rewarding in itself. The pert woodwind – so often seeming to chuckle at the Windsor-based antics – are heard to notable effect, the brass relish their often flamboyant passages (some marvellous trumpet trills are to be heard at the end of the first scene of Act One) and the whole ensemble is lively and precise.
Vocally this is, overall, a youthful-sounding cast who work well together, and there is much interplay and banter to savour. There is no sense of anyone vying to become the prima donna, or primo uomo for that matter, and so scenes where the Windsor ladies are planning their machinations find the singers evenly matched. Given the nature of their parts, inevitably Ana Ibarra and Jane Henschel do stand out, and whilst they suit the context of this performance to a tee, one can find more pure character elsewhere on disc. EMI's “Great Recordings of the Century” includes Karajan's 1956 version with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and if ever the word 'evergreen' describes a recording, it surely applies in this case. Henschel's 'Reverenza' salutations are admirable for avoiding over-exaggeration, but Fedora Barbieri for Karajan relishes the text here and elsewhere in a way that the Barbican cast might have done well to emulate.
There are times in this LSO recording where sheer verbal acuity is lacking. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – in what is surely her most convincing recorded Italianate role – positively sparkles as Alice Ford in a way which makes Ana Ibarra sound less characterful by direct comparison.
Both Maria Josè Moreno and Bülent Bezdüz are ideally cast as the young lovers, with Bezdüz having an especially attractive timbre. Their exchanges are both delightful and touching. Michele Pertusi, as recorded, sounds a rather slender knight than an overtly corpulent one. Whilst his voice is not unattractive in itself, he does rather lack the sense of gravitas which can make Falstaff's more reflective passages all the more moving. He doesn't quite 'command' in the way some of his predecessors on disc do, but his is evidently an intelligently thought-out interpretation and there is much to enjoy in his portrayal. Carlos Alvarez is similarly strong as Ford, though he and Pertusi are perhaps too similar in tone for their Act Two scene together to have as much impact as it might.
There are no really 'minor' characters in this opera, and it is cast from strength throughout. Peter Hoare and Darren Jeffrey immediately impress as Falstaff's henchmen, whilst the opening cries from Alasdair Elliott convey righteous indignation, though no-one quite matches Gerhard Stolze's hysterical outbursts with Bernstein in Vienna on CBS/Sony.
Falstaff has been lucky on record. As ever with an opera, one might want this or that version for a particular singer or a conductor's approach, but this LSO Live issue is certainly deserving of being heard alongside – if not in place of – others in the catalogue.
I regret the inclusion of applause, cheers and cries of 'bravo' at the end of each scene, which I suspect will become an irritant on repeated hearing. These of course add to the sense of a 'live' occasion, and ultimately this finely cast and splendidly conducted performance is one to be recommended and, at LSO Live's budget price, a bargain to boot. Something Sir John Falstaff himself would have deemed a praiseworthy factor in itself.

 

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