Vintage Falstaffs

Dan Davis

[January 2003.]

Falstaff, that most elusive, atypical, and wondrous of all Verdi operas, is enjoying new life these days thanks largely to Bryn Terfel’s outsized portrayal at the Met and Covent Garden, and on disc under the baton of Claudio Abbado. But thanks to the efforts of Music & Arts and Naxos, we have a golden opportunity to hear what the best Falstaffs of the past offered — experienced, idiomatic, all-Italian casts. Alas, the Silver Age of opera singing was in many ways a Stone Age for recording. But persevere! Listen, if you can, through the dull, congested, and dated sonics and savor the way the music comes to life.

The Music & Arts set is, to understate the case, a treasure. Its four discs contain not one, but two Falstaffs, led by the leading opera conductors of the day, Victor de Sabata and Tullio Serafin, and starring the definitive Falstaff of Mariano Stabile. Stabile, who sang the rôle 1,200 times, is to Falstaff what Chaliapin was to Boris Godunov and Maria Callas was to Tosca. Serafin’s Falstaff, never previously available, is from a 1941 radio broadcast made during a tour of Nazi Germany by the Rome Opera and salvaged from the German Radio archives. Sadly, it’s not complete — the first act stops moments after the beginning of the Honor Monologue. Also missing are the start of the Windsor Forest scene, including Fenton’s aria, and a chunk of the last scene. Lost forever, or in such bad shape they can’t be restored? The notes don’t tell us, so your guess is as good as mine. The other Falstaff is a complete, live 1952 performance from La Scala. It’s notable for de Sabata’s febrile conducting, the aging Stabile’s wily ways in covering inevitable vocal decline, the young Renata Tebaldi as Alice, and the elegant Cesare Valletti’s mellifluous Fenton.

Stabile, who studied the part with Toscanini, was 53 at the time of the 1941 Serafin performance, at the tail end of his prime, though one would hardly know it from the evidence of these discs. By 1952, although he was 64 and had been singing professionally for 43 years, voice and technique were largely intact — we’re not listening to an aging baritone in decline but to an artist cannily obscuring the ravages of age upon a voice that retains its basic tonal qualities. He’s always been the standard against which other Falstaffs have been measured and both of these performances are outstanding, most especially in the way he is alive to the sense of the text and its possibilities for subtle coloring of phrases and characterization of situations. Musically, he doesn’t indulge in weird distortions as you might expect from a singer who’d been singing the rôle for three decades. Rather, there’s a sense of listening to an experienced singer still finding new nuances in a familiar part. It’s hard not to agree with Alan Blyth’s notes to this set when, after listing a number of apt interpretive touches, he writes that they make “… Stabile’s interpretation truly Shakespearean and Verdian, as does the sheer suavity of tone throughout — the whole unforgettable indeed.”

The same might be said of the Mistress Quickly, mezzo Cloe Elmo, who also sings in both performances, as well as in Toscanini’s famed 1950 NBC broadcasts, still the best Falstaff on disc (RCA). Without vocal mugging, she extracts every scintilla of irony and humor from the rôle . When she sings “Reverenza …” you can almost see her making an exaggerated stage bow to the fat knight. The 1941 Serafin also scores with the young Tito Gobbi, later a great Falstaff, as Ford. Even in those early years, Gobbi was an outstanding singing actor, delivering Ford’s monologue with tremendous intensity. Weak spots in both sets are minimal, though the Nanettas can’t compare with the best and Serafin’s Augusta Oltrabella is too blowsy for the young lover. The Fentons are exceptional, though — Valletti the best on records and the young Ferruccio Tagliavini for Serafin in 1941 running him close.

Music & Arts is up-front about the cuts. The set’s cover clearly identifies the previously unreleased 1941 Serafin as “Major Fragments,” when only about 20 percent of the opera is missing. As compensation, they give us over half an hour of de Sabata-led excerpts from Aida and Otello in 1938. Although singers of the level of Gina Cigna (Aida), Benjamino Gigli (Radames), Maria Caniglia (Desdemona) and Francesco Merli (Otello) are involved, the prime interest lies in further examples of the seldom-recorded conductor’s art. Maggi Payne is credited with “technical reconstruction” and she’s done her usual fine job of transferring dated, often murky material, into something listenable. The 1941 studio broadcast recording comes off sounding far better than the 1952 live La Scala, especially in its more natural balances and greater orchestral detail — vital in a work where the orchestra is as important as the singers. The four-disc set is discounted, too — $30 at the Music & Arts Website, a few bucks more at Amazon.

Another vintage Falstaff is also worthy of attention. Budget-label Naxos has released in its invaluable Great Opera Recordings series the 1932 first complete recording of the work. It’s a fine performance by La Scala forces under the direction of Lorenzo Molajoli and features some excellent singing from Giacomo Rimini’s deep-toned Falstaff and the lovely soprano of Pia Tassinari as Alice. Ward Marston’s transfers are, as always, exceptional, making the 1932 sonics come up better than I’d ever heard them sounding. But even he can’t completely overcome the limitations of the period, which shortchange the all-important orchestra. Still, this is a set that appeals both for its historical interest and to relish the sheer sound of Italian tripping from the mouths of native speakers — a real treat in these days of international casts with their mélanges of accents and techniques. The set’s bonus tracks are also highly desirable — eight arias recorded by Tassarini in the early 1940s, when the soprano was at her best.

None of these Falstaffs will be anyone’s first choice, worthy as they are of inclusion in the libraries of any true Verdian. My personal preferences are for the 1950 RCA Toscanini with the EMI Karajan starring Gobbi’s Falstaff as the runner-up. If you want stereo — and you should, to reveal the wealth of critical orchestral detail — the Solti (Decca) should do nicely, though choosing the new Terfel-Abbado (DG) gets no argument from me. But just as you can never be too rich or too thin, you can never have enough Falstaffs.


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