Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Falstaff, Commedia lyrica in three acts (1893)
Libretto by Arrigo Boito
Falstaff – Giuseppe Taddei (baritone)
Alice Ford – Raina Kabaivanska (soprano)
Ford – Rolando Panerai (baritone)
Meg Page – Trudeliese Schmidt (mezzo)
Mistress Quickly – Christa Ludwig (mezzo)
Nannetta – Janet Perry (soprano)
Fenton – Francesco Araiza (tenor)
Pistol – Federico Davia (bass)
Bardolph – Heinz Zednik (tenor)
Dr. Caius – Piero De Palma (tenor)
Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert Von Karajan
rec. live, June 1982, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Summer Festival
Produced and directed by Herbert Von Karajan.
C Major 761504 Blu-ray [135]

This is the latest instalment of C Major’s series of Blu-ray reissues of the Salzburg Festival Opera productions by Herbert von Karajan and now, as I write this review, his version of Verdi’s Don Carlos has just been released. In purely musical terms, the operas of Giuseppe Verdi consistently brought out the best in von Karajan. The many commercial and live recordings he left behind attest to this. The Salzburg summer festival of 1982 was a heady time for opera productions. This Falstaff alternated with notable productions by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (Les Contes d’Hoffmann and Die Zauberflote), Michael Hampe (Cosi Fan Tutte), Leopold Lindtberg (Fidelio), and Dieter Dorn (Ariadne auf Naxos). It is posterity’s luck that four of these productions were filmed and preserved on DVD, although not necessarily recorded that same year.

Von Karajan the director takes a more serious view of Falstaff than did most directors at the time. His direction of the principals brings things closer to Shakespeare’s comedic dramas by dropping in occasional flashes of humour but there is nothing here that would bring on guffaws. Ronald Eyre tried to much the same thing at Covent Garden a year or so later but it did not come off as well because of a too dour Falstaff from Renato Bruson. The principals here respond to Von Karajan’s direction with illuminating portrayals of the Windsor townsfolk. Gunther Schneider-Siemssen’s gloriously autumnal coloured sets reflect real living spaces of the period and are large enough to accommodate everyone on stage and not feel cramped. One might argue that the Ford mansion is rather too large, unless they are aristocratic landowners rather than well-to-do townsfolk. Georges Wakhevitch’s rich but relatively sober-coloured costumes reflect the late 16th century in a general sense.

Vocally this is an extremely distinguished cast. The remarkable Giuseppe Taddei is captured in his most famous role at the age of 66. His Falstaff is gloriously sung with deep firm tone from the bottom to the very top of his range. His portrayal of the fat knight (less obese than often presented) show Sir John as always conscious of his sense of his own nobility. He uses his wonderfully expressive eyes to add character to his acting and he is believably fierce in his moments of anger. The power and depth of Taddei’s performance is truly astonishing. Rolando Panerai’s Ford is very nearly Taddei’s equal. His powerful baritone sails through the “Jealousy” monologue with amplitude to spare. It is only Panerai’s acting, which is not quite as detailed as Taddei’s, that prevents him from achieving the heights of his colleague. Then we have the amazing Christa Ludwig singing her first onstage Quickly. Ludwig has a brighter mezzo sound than we normally hear from other interpreters of Quickly. She sings with firm command of line and luscious sound. She acts the role with just the right amount of high spirits for this perpetually amusing character. One could purchase this disc for the Garter Inn scene alone, with these three great singers of the 20th century, still at the peak of their talents, and come away feeling that one’s money had been well spent.

The Windsor ladies are also a fairly winning bunch. Raina Kabaivanska is an authoritative Alice Ford, much better than I had recalled. Her light but beautifully controlled tremolo tickles the ear as she rises to the challenge of Verdi’s arching phrases. Her acting is sincere and always deeply involved. Trudeliese Schmidt is one of the more attractive of Megs, both visually and vocally; her mellow tone and natural stage presence delivers a wife who is warmer and more good-natured than her friend Alice. Janet Perry’s Nanetta looks a bit more mature than the character should be, but her sweet, light timbre spins out the high suspended musical phrases in her music most fetchingly.

Among the Windsor men, Francisco Araiza’s Fenton looks a little too old to be a believable in the role, but his virile, hazel-coloured tone makes this Fenton one of the most appealing on any video version. He does briefly fall out of synch with the conductor in the middle of his Act Three romance but quickly manages to recover his place. Federico Davià and Heinz Zednik are a fine pair of rogues and the great character-tenor Piero De Palma is a wonderfully waspish Dr Caius.

Over all of this, von Karajan the conductor leads a stylish account of the score while getting a richly expansive sound from the Vienna Philharmonic. This is a lusher-sounding orchestral fabric than we are used to hearing in this opera these days but Falstaff is no worse for it. Like the previous Blu-rays in this series, the cover states that the video source derives from an HD source. As before, this means that some of the close-up shots seem to have a better, more detailed, image than previously, but many of the dark shots feature significant amounts of grain. The two-channel stereo sound holds no disappointments that I could detect.

Ultimately this counts as a historic performance and is recommendable on those terms. The cast here is superior to many other versions, and in the case of Taddei, Panerai and Ludwig, is just about unbeatable. The production is filled with so many realistic touches of character detail that it probably comes off better on video that it would have if one had been sitting in the vast Salzburg auditorium. 

Mike Parr

Previous review (2008 DVD release): Robert J Farr

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Production details
Sets – Gunther Schneider-Siemssen.
Costumes – Georges Wakhevitch
Chorus Master – Walter Hagen Groll

Video details
Region code – all regions
Picture format: 4:3
Sound format DTS Master Audio 5.1/ PCM stereo 2.0
Sung in Italian; subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Korean
Booklet notes; English; German; French