The curtain descends, everything ends, too soon, too soon
Verdi’s valedictory opera was performed by Parma’s opera company as part of their complete survey of the Master’s operas. The show was presented at the Teatro Farnese di Parma instead of the Teatro Regio for reasons unknown to me. I’ve written a lot about the merits of Verdi’s unique opera, so there’s little need to add to all the praise it’s received other than to remind the listener who’s new to it that it’s a sport – a unique work unlike any other in the repertory. It moves so quickly that audiences were at first baffled by it. Musicians always loved it. Toscanini conducted it more often than any other opera. Today it is firmly ensconced in the standard repertory.
Parma’s 2011 production featured Ambrogio Maestri, today’s definitive Falstaff. Shakespeare’s fat knight is one of literature’s greatest personalities. Verdi’s incarnation of this seminal figure is equal to the Bard’s standard. Maestri has sung Falstaff more than 200 times, though this number was lower in 2011. He’s a huge man, big enough to be an interior lineman in the NFL. He does not overplay the part which results in a sympathetic carouser past his prime rather than a caricature of an old leecher. He’s a baritone with a firm command of his entire range which is wide enough for him to have both Tonio in Pagliacci and Dulcamara in L’Elisir D’Amore in his repertoire. His portrayal of Falstaff in the Parma production is not quite up to the exalted level he reached in the 2013 production at the Met which was part of its HD series. He was surrounded by a first rate cast in Parma (as he was at the Met).
Svetla Vassileva was Alice Ford. She has both a fine voice and an excellent stage presence. She’s a very petite woman, so much so that Falstaff’s attempt to seduce her seemed doomed not only by the plot, but by the constraints of anatomy as well.
Ford is perhaps opera’s greatest secondary part. Luca Salsi had all he voice needed to bring off his great second act monologue – E Sogno. Salsi has sung 31 performances at the Met, including seven this year. A fine baritone.
The two lovers were played by Barbara Bargnesi and Antonio Gandia. The latter looked a little too old for a teen age swain, but he sounded fine as did Bargnesi. All of the cast listed below were at the best international standard. A little more pizazz from Romina Tomasoni as Dame Quickly would have helped, but she was still good.
The production was simple, but effective. It made use of a big bed, sheets, a bathtub,and other simple sets and props. An annoying conceit was making the page from Act 1 follow Falstaff around for most of the opera dressed in a suit of armor. He even took a curtain call with Maestri. The page should have been pitched.
If there was a problem with the production it was with conductor Andrea Battistoni. He was only 24 at the time of this recording. Even the ultra precocious Arturo Toscanini didn’t do the opera until he was 27. He was 25 when the work was first performed. Battistoni is an up and coming conductor as well as an author, composer, and instrumentalist. He currently leads the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. But Falstaff is perhaps as daunting a conductorial effort as can be found in all opera. The intricate multi part ensembles that are found in all three acts did not have the cohesion that they demand. I have little doubt that Battistoni will soon be, or perhaps already is, able to meet all of this opera’s challenges. It is for this reason that the DVD of Maestri’s performance two years later at the Met under the secure baton of James Levine is the preferred visual recording of Verdi’s great opera.
So this is a 30 to Parma’s Verdi cycle. Alas, there is no more. The silent years from Aida to Otello (the Requiem excepted) could have yielded several additional masterpieces had Farmer Green been so inclined. But unlike Shakespeare and Rossini he did come back for two colossal encores.
Sir John Falstaff – Ambrogio Maestri
Ford – Luca Salsi
Fenton – Antonio Gandia
Dr. Cajus – Luca Casalin
Bardolfo – Patrizio Saudelli
Pistola – Mattia Denti
Mrs. Alice Ford – Svetla Vassileva
Nannetta – Barbara Bargnesi
Mrs. Quickly – Romina Tomasoni
Mrs. Meg Page – Daniela Pini
Parma Teatro Regio Chorus and Orchestra
(chorus master: Martino Faggiani)
Andrea Battistoni, conductor
Stephen Medcalf, stage director
Jamie Vartan, set and costume designer
Simon Corder, lighting designer
Video Director Tiziano Mancini
Recorded live at the Teatro Farnese di Parma, 10, 12, 15, 22, 25 October 2011