Notes and Editorial Reviews
Plishka · Freni · Horne Bonney · Pola · Lopardo · Graham
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus James Levine Directed by Franco Zeffirelli
DVD-VIDEO NTSC STEREO: PCM / SURROUND: DTS 5.1 · Picture Format: 4:3
Falstaff at the Met - A Zeffirelli Classic
This time-honoured production of Verdi's final opera, one that has seen all the greatest Falstaffs of the last four decades hold court at its convincingly shabby Garter Inn and upset the decent folk of its lovingly recreated Tudor Windsor, marked the first appearance at the Met of producer and
designer Franco Zeffirelli in March 1964. The Anglophile Zeffirelli had by then made his Shakespearean reputation with a revelatory Romeo and Juliet in London - his films of this play and of The Taming of the Shrew were shortly to follow - as well as with a similar production of Falstaff at Covent Garden, and the attention to visual and psychological detail displayed in his Met Falstaff won it high praise: “a milestone in the history of operatic production in this city" was the judgement of the New York Herald Tribune.
The score itself abounds with details: the violas that depict Bardolph rummaging in Falstaff's near-empty purse in Act I or follow the wine trickling down the bedraggled knight's throat in Act III are just two of countless examples, and Zeffirelli pursues this thread of theatrical realism to make his stage a living environment: on one level, glances between characters convey unspoken understandings, while on another, the merry wives' fuller lives are suggested in their clearly home-made costumes for the final scene.
But the cheerfulness and humanity of this England are miraculously expressed in the terms of another tradition, that of the Italian comic opera, trimmed, distilled and heightened to a remarkable degree. Verdi wrote that his librettist had “resolved all the buts and written me a lyric comedy unlike any other", but there is, nevertheless, some common ground that the Shakespeare and opera buffa share: innocent young lovers battling against parental authority, a lubricious and self-deluding older man, and his sharp-witted female nemesis. This last character, Alice Ford, whom Verdi said “stirs the porridge", even evokes the Susanna at the centre of all the intrigues in Le nozze di Figaro, and it is fitting that Mirella Freni, one of the great Susannas of her time (and a famous Nannetta, too) should here graduate to her mature counterpart. Her partners in mischief are equally strongly cast: on the one hand Barbara Bonney and Susan Graham represent the emerging new generation of American singers, while Marilyn Horne, in her first Met appearance as Mistress Quickly, brings with her the spirit of Rossinian comedy.
Central to everything, of course, is Sir John Falstaff himself, without whom, as he says, “the other's wit would have no spice". For American bass Paul Plishka, this production was an artistic highlight of his long career with the Met company. The New York Times described his account of the role as having “an almost touchingly human quality", and the singer himself confided: “When I finished the performances, weeks and weeks went by, and I missed that character so badly. I felt a loss as if someone very close to me had died."
Verdi's score races along unstoppably from one idea to the next, and if the secret of comedy lies in timing, then it is the sensitivity of a great comedian that the conductor needs in order to convey the cut and thrust of Falstaff's first assignation with Alice, for instance, or punctuate the rhetorical display of the “Honour" monologue. James Levine, faithful to Verdi's metronome markings, plunges the listener straight into the action, and for the New York Times reviewer, his interpretation turned the orchestra itself into a character actor. The experience of a lifetime in the opera house is encapsulated in Verdi's magical orchestration, no more so than when the characters leave the stage and, using the simplest of means, the composer pauses to observe the fading afternoon light at the end of one scene and to depict an unthreatening nocturnal woodland at the beginning of the next, in musical vignettes beautifully executed here by the players of the Met orchestra.
Kenneth Chalmers 3/2009
Works on This Recording
Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi
Paul Plishka (Bass),
Barbara Bonney (Soprano),
Mirella Freni (Soprano),
Marilyn Horne (Mezzo Soprano),
Bruno Pola (Baritone),
Susan Graham (Mezzo Soprano),
Frank Lopardo (Tenor)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus,
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Written: 1893; Italy
Date of Recording: 10/1992
Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Length: 126 Minutes 0 Secs.
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