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Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff adapted by Tony Britten
17 Aug 2009

Verdi: Falstaff

Those opera lovers prone to rage at the perceived dominance of the director in their beloved art form today may collapse in apoplexy at this first release from the company called SignumVision.

Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff adapted by Tony Britten

John Falstaff (Ian Jervis); Alice Ford (Jan Hartley); Francis Ford QC (Julian Forsyth); Doctor Cajus (Simon Butteriss); Bardolph: (Daniel Gillingwater); Pistol (Simon Masterton Smith); Mrs Quickly (Marilyn Cutts); Meg Page (Rosamund Shelley); Nanetta Ford (Katie Lovell); Fenton (Andy Morton).

Signum Vision SIGDVD001 [DVD]

$23.49  Click to buy

For this is, according to the booklet, “Falstaff in a new version by Tony Britten,” with the director’s name in huge font and below, barely in letter-size a third as big, “based on the opera by Verdi and Boito.” But Verdi and Boito might not object, as they could fairly claim any success this film version has and shrug off its less worthy aspects. After all, that same Tony Britten not only rewrote the libretto, but reorchestrated the score for a small ensemble, as well as serving, of course, as director.

Again, this is a filmed version, with the singers moving their lips to the pre-recorded soundtrack. Britten has set the action in a suburban (or borderline rural) golf club. Sir John has planted himself at the tiny club bar, with his two “henchmen” Bardolf and Pistol at a table nearby. Fenton is the golf pro, and the housewives are dedicated to the sport. Britten’s skill with the camera and his actors makes the film initially quite entertaining. Characters are well-delineated, and the seedy ambiance of this far-lying, older sport resort suits the action well enough. Even as a librettist, while no Boito, Britten has a fine ear for matching English inflection to Verdi’s rhythm’s, and some of the updating is fairly witty (the merry wives refer to themselves as “desperate housewives”). By the time of Sir John’s first date with the ladies, however, a sort of adolescent, sniggering approach to sexuality, familiar to US viewers through, say, “The Benny Hill Show,” curdles the cream, as it were. Sir John, instead of being dumped in the river, gets dumped in a trash dump. He reappears with a soiled baby diaper stuck to his back, and then pulls the corpse of a furry varmint from his pants. Well, many people found “The Benny Hill Show” uproarious, so…to each his own soiled baby diaper.

Purists will undoubtedly object, but Britten’ reorchestration captures much of the inventive charm of Verdi’s original. A keyboard lays down the basic harmonic fabric, and a small group of chirpy winds supplies the light-hearted thrust of Verdi’s score. Only in the final credits is there a credit for music direction (Jonathan Gill). The singers, whom the director admits were chosen more for their acting ability than vocal prowess, range from decent (Ian Jervis’s Sir John, Jan Hartley’s Alice Ford) or acceptable (Julian Forsyth’s Ford, Andy Morton’s Fenton) to strained (Katie Lovell’s Nanetta, especially at her top) and hooty (Marilyn Cutt’s Miss Quickly). They all get the words across efficiently, which is good, since there are no subtitles in any language offered by the disc. Words do tend tend to blur in ensemble numbers, unsurprisingly.

The booklet has no information on the score or the musicians whatsoever, although it has room for the director to expound on both the opera and his vision of it. A tiresome “making of” documentary adds little to interest to the set.

So, this Falstaff is well-filmed, amusingly acted, and adequately sung for the most part. If Britten hadn’t resorted to the lowbrow humor, his “new version” of Verdi and Boito’s masterwork could have made itself an enjoyable “addendum.” But as said above, to those who have to hold their sides when “Are You Being Served?” comes on the telly, no such objection will interfere with the tittering.

Chris Mullins

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