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
Colin Davis Verdi Falstaff
Monday, May 17, 2004 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Alexander Campbell
This was a hugely enjoyable concert presentation of Verdis Indian Summer masterpiece. Often, without the distractions of a staging, one can become aware of other facets of a work, and this was certainly the case here. Much of Verdis inventive scoring registered in a way that is often not possible when the sound is emerging from an opera house pit, and having a complete libretto to follow allows one to gain a whole extra dimension in appreciation of the text. All the singers had excellent diction. That so many of the singers here gave such complete performances dramatically really added to the sense of ensemble and this of all operas requires real ensemble playing and singing.
The LSO was at its appreciable best for Sir Colin Davis. The performance, which was pretty fleet, had real drive and energy, even if some of the orchestral blasts threatened to overwhelm some of the singers, Michele Pertusis Falstaff suffering most in this regard. Whilst he was music director at the Royal Opera the vox pop was that Sir Colin was never a natural Verdian conductor, but on this showing I would disagree with that assertion. The pacing was exemplary, and tricky moments such as Falstaff counting the tolling of the midnight chimes at the start of the second scene of the final act taken rather faster than usual were handled extremely well. There was some fantastic woodwind playing in the middle act with myriad details in the orchestration popping up all the time. Both conductor and orchestra seemed to be enjoying themselves hugely.
The vocal performances were also very fine and the cast very evenly matched on the whole. Carlos Alvarez made a very strong impression as Ford. He was the only singer to be entirely without-score and has obviously had much stage experience with the role, as he was alive to every nuance of the text. His strong, full and spicy baritone projected well and his jealousy aria was delivered with real bite. The interplay with Falstaff in the Act Two scene at the Garter Inn was a highlight, as by vocal means alone he made one aware of Fords conflicting emotions. He also played his part pretty straight Falstaff, like all good comedy, has its serious side and the humour benefits from a serious approach.
Fords wife was sung by the Spanish soprano Ana Ibarra (whom this reviewer heard recently in Barcelona in Montsalvatges Babel 46) and again there was seriousness in her characterisation, which emphasised the dark side of the story as well. Vocally she has a somewhat mezzo-like quality to her voice it has a wonderfully rich and warm middle register and one could argue that tonally she was rather similar to the attractive and luscious-voiced Meg Page of Marina Domaschenko. However, the high reaches seemed to hold no terrors for her and she has flexibility and also dramatic temperament, or in another word, feistiness. An interesting performance from a singer I hope we hear more of.
And I would also like to hear more of the Nannetta too. Initially Maria Josè Moreno did not seem to project her character enough, although her interactions with Bülent Bezdüzs ardent and lyrical Fenton were charmingly sung. However, in Act Three, she revealed stunning technique and ethereal tone quality as Nannetta sings her fairy queen song. This was again taken quite fast by Davis to the great benefit of the aria it never dragged as it so often can but nor did the singer sound pressed or rushed. There was a moment when she also revealed her voice to be a much larger instrument than initially one might have suspected.
Fruity is the only way to describe Jane Henschels Mistress Quickly. Her voice has an amazing compass, and is so secure throughout its range, encompassing wit, and her baritonal vocal emulation of Falstaff was hilarious. Perhaps she slightly overplayed the comedy but it is a glorious role and was delivered with some aplomb.
Dr Caius, Pistola and Bardolfo, great cameo parts all, were sung by Alasdair Elliott, Darren Jeffrey and Peter Hoare respectively. They were nicely differentiated with Jeffery and Hoare making a memorable duo. Peter Hoare evidently also has much stage experience in this role very funny. I loved their Amens in the first scene of the opera (which incidentally were mirrored by some wonderful deliberately out-of-tune mock-religious responses by Alice and Meg in the operas final scene I have never heard these sung like this and it makes much more sense if they are not sung beautifully), and they interplayed well with the other male characters, bar poor old Fenton. He was placed with the ladies on the other side of the podium and this was the one unsatisfactory aspect of the singers positioning Fenton needs to flit between the action of both the male and female factions in Windsor.
So, what of Falstaff himself? Well, Michele Pertusi was perhaps the weak link of the performance. As mentioned earlier he did not always appear to have to vocal heft to ride the orchestral climaxes, and for all his incisive and detailed delivery of the text his voice and even persona are probably just not fat enough for the part. He also perhaps overplayed the serious side of the character I missed Falstaffs narcissistic, blind self-belief. He seemed to relax more in his encounters with Ford than at other times, but he also seemed rather more score-bound that the rest of the cast. I suspect on a recording it would come over rather better, and it may be that with experience this interpretation will develop further. As it was it seemed slightly lacking in the three-dimensional quality displayed by others in the cast.
Nonetheless, the real wit and inventiveness of both Boitos libretto and Verdis score came leaping over the footlights with an immediacy not always encountered in the opera house. Hopefully, this quality will be apparent on the LSO Live recording when it arrives since these performances are being recorded for CD release.