VERDI Falstaff • John Pritchard, cond; Donald Gramm ( Falstaff ); Benjamin Luxon ( Ford ); Kay Griffel ( Alice Ford ); Reni Penkova ( Meg Page ); Elizabeth Gale ( Nannetta ); Nucci Condo ( Dame Quickly ); Max-Rene Cosotti ( Fenton ); John Fryatt ( Dr. Cajus ); Bernard Dickerson ( Bardolfo ); Ugo Trama ( Pistola ); Glyndebourne Ch; London PO • ARTHAUS 102315 (DVD: 123:00) Live: Glyndebourne 8/14/1976
When I was younger and less musically sophisticated, I couldn’t understand the appeal of Verdi’s Falstaff. Yes, the music was brisk, witty, and often tuneful, but it wasn’t tuneful enough for my young self. I much preferred Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor for good comic laughs. But as I aged, I did come to appreciate it through two performances that actually sounded, well, funny, and coincidentally both were given at Salzburg some 45 years apart: Toscanini’s 1937 performance and Herbert von Karajan’s 1982 version. To me, these are still the ideal performances of this opera, not Toscanini’s 1950 NBC broadcast or Karajan’s late-1950s EMI recording.
This 1976 Glyndebourne production, previously issued on DVD in 2005, falls somewhere in the middle: it is not quite as scintillating as the two performances I hold as benchmarks but neither as straight-faced as the two that I mention which others hold as benchmarks. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was John Pritchard’s conducting. More often than not, Pritchard was a steady, competent but remarkably sober-sounding conductor on records, but here in a live setting he imparts a surprising degree of life and zest to the proceedings.
The late Donald Gramm, once one of the world’s most famous bass-baritones but latterly fallen into oblivion, is an altogether fascinating Falstaff. Unlike Mariano Stabile (with Toscanini) or Giuseppe Taddei (with Karajan), Gramm plays down the seedy-Italian-buffo style, giving us a Falstaff who is still wrapped up in dignity despite his having come down in the world. I like this interpretation; as Orson Welles pointed out in his classic film Chimes at Midnight, Falstaff was, after all, a noble character in his youth, and one should not necessarily assume that he is all opera-buffo gestures and Zero Mostel-like mugging. Or, as the late Gracie Allen once said, it’s five times funnier for a man who carries himself with pomp, dresses well, and puts on airs to have his hat knocked off by a snowball than someone who dresses casually and acts like a normal person. It’s just human nature to want to see the stuffed shirt brought down a peg or two.
The comic gesticulating in this performance is rightly reserved for Dr. Cajus and Falstaff’s two latter-day “associates,” Bardolph and Pistol, and again the singing actors portraying these roles do a first-rate job (as did Karajan’s cast in 1982). Yet where this production really shines, and does so even above the Karajan and Toscanini versions, is in the consistently excellent singing and acting of the four ladies, and I found it interesting that except for Elizabeth Gale, who I recalled being a very fine British soubrette at the time, I had never heard of any of them. I have to assume that Kay Griffel is better known in England than she is here, because her name is also on the front of the DVD box, but I had never seen or heard her before. She’s terrific, and so are Reni Penkova (Meg Page) and Nucci Condo (Dame Quickly), the latter of whom looks like a young Rosie O’Donnell. Condo’s delivery of the endlessly repeated “Reverenzas” is not quite as fruity or funny as Cloe Elmo (the one really funny cast member in Toscanini’s 1950 performance) or Christa Ludwig (with Karajan), but she is good enough. All four women are superb actresses, and they do something that few Falstaff casts manage to do, which is to make the written-out laughter on pitch actually sound like laughter.
There is a bit of luxury casting here with Benjamin Luxon as Ford. His voice is as I remembered it, rich and full but a little woolly, not quite a wobble but a continuous flutter, yet again his acting skills often triumph over this slight deficiency. Tenor Max-Rene Cosotti, whom I had never heard of before, is a good Fenton, his voice bright and well focused if not quite as beautiful as that of Francisco Araiza (with Karajan) or Dino Borgioli (with Toscanini in 1937).
Yet what makes this Falstaff work so brilliantly and still impress us today is the superb direction of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. What superb stage work this is! How well he directs his cast, brings out animation as well as naturalness, and pulls everything together! And notice, please, that he does this without having to “update” the sets or costumes to the 20th century. He is content enough to leave Falstaff set in the time of King Henry IV and not worry about whether or not his audience will be able to “relate” to the events taking place. Falstaff is stuffed into an actual laundry basket, not a modern hamper. He is thrown into a river, not a swimming pool at some rich person’s mansion. He has his place held for him at the Garter Inn, not at some bistro. This is a real Falstaff production! How I wish we could have stayed at this level of innovation within the bounds of what the work intended to convey.
Ponnelle’s staging of the last scene, in which a couple of “moving bushes” surround Falstaff (along with one character who looks like Cousin It from The Addams Family ) was not quite as comical as the little sprites who stick Falstaff in the rear end with pitchforks in Karajan’s production, but it still works well; and I liked his closing the curtain and then bringing Falstaff and eventually all the principals out in front of it to line them up and sing the concluding fugue. All in all, it’s a first-rate job.
Apparently there was an alternate cast in this production, for I’ve tracked down a listing from July 14 of that year in which all the principals were the same except for Richard Cross as Falstaff and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson as Fenton, conducted by Kenneth Montgomery. This version, which was the televised performance, was given exactly one month later. And I must compliment TV director Dave Heather for one really nice touch: at the end, as the principals come out to take their bows, he superimposes their names over them at about waist level. What a terrific way of knowing, and appreciating, who’s who among the secondary characters!
We’ve become so spoiled by digital video that it took me back a bit to see that the darkish opening scene, and in fact all such scenes here, were a little bit muddy. Then it dawned on me—this is 1976, and cameras back then sometimes had a little trouble filming in half-light. Yet aside from these few small complaints, this is certainly a Falstaff you will want to own. Even if you have the Karajan, the acting and direction here are an excellent alternative, and one cannot say enough good things about the singing of Gramm and the four ladies.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 4:3
Region Code: 0 worldwide
Menu Languages: German, French, English, Spanish
Subtitle Languages: Italian, German, French, English, Spanish
Running Time: 118 mins