03 Apr 2010

Verdi’s Falstaff (Glyndebourne 2009) on Blu-Ray

Much of the fascination of the new DVD of Verdi’s Falstaff (Glyndebourne 2009) lies in the Richard Jones’s updating: the action takes place in 1946.

Fenton is a private-first-class; Mrs. Quickly also wears a military uniform; the front yard of the Ford house is a victory garden full of cabbages. Insofar as The Merry Wives of Windsor is a sequel to the Henry IV plays, the post-war milieu makes a kind of sense: the Hotspur rebellion has recently been defeated—though World War II was a rather different kind of conflict.

I felt that this premise presented opportunities that were missed. The sense of half-exhausted rebirth, the lingering presence of the scarecrow army in 2 Henry IV, never made itself felt: instead the Windsor of 1946 yielded a few nice comical touches, such as Ford’s Dracula costume in Act 3, scene 2, and the Victrola that played the lute strumming that accompanies Falstaff’s wooing song in Act 2, scene 2, thereby making a charming effect of karaoke. This production might have been the first to find the Samuel Beckett opera that lies within Verdi’s and Boito’s work.

The singer who plays Falstaff usually dominates the opera, and so it was here. Christopher Purves moves inside in fat suit with uncommon grace—he dances his way through the opera, even trying to get Ford to follow his lead, as if Act 2, scene 1 were a big foxtrot. Purves is a splendid comedian, waggling his fingers like W. C. Fields, but without Fields’ resources of misanthropy—it would be better to say that this is the Falstaff that Benny Hill might have thought up, a Falstaff who leers with big eyes and gets shot in the buttock by a small boy with a slingshot. Bardolfo and Pistola are second bananas in carefully choreographed production numbers: after Falstaff praises his own paunch in Act 1, scene 1, they hold out their upturned palms to him as if inviting the audience to applaud his star turn. The sense of Falstaff as comedy revue is everywhere: Ford squirts himself with seltzer water and slaps himself silly; during the sneak-up to Fenton and Nannetta, as they kiss behind a screen in Act 2, scene 2, the stalkers form a line and each person slaps the person behind him.

The musical values of this production are less impressive than the carefully contrived dramatic ones. The singing is mostly good but not distinguished, with the possible exception of Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s deliciously baritonal Quickly: the woolly-voiced Ford of Tassis Christoyannis is satisfactory; Purves’s Falstaff is a little too light in timbre but finely agile; Dina Kuznetsova’s Alice is rich and vibrant, maybe too vibrant on the higher notes. Vladmir Jurowski conducts with sufficient briskness, but without the urgency or the pungent articulation of Bernstein or Toscanini.

In his excellent notes to this recording, Russ McDonald quotes a letter from Eleanora Duse to Boito: “How melancholy your comedy is.” Duse would not have written this if she had seen this pleasant, harmless production.

Daniel Albright

See below for the standard DVD version of this recording: