Verdi’s final opera is both a departure from all he had done previously and yet the culmination of a half century career. Building on the musical language the had developed to perfection he wrote an opera that was unlike any that preceded it. Musicians loved it from the start. Richard Strauss thought it one of the greatest masterpieces in musical history. Toscanini returned to it repeatedly throughout his long career. Audiences were a little slower to realizes its beauty. It does not have the lushness of Ernani, or Il Trovatore, or La Forza Del Destino – all set in torid Spain. Falstaff moves faster than Hermes. Its concerted numbers are dazzlingly intricate. Beautiful melodies that Verdi would have made into long arias prior to his late period come and go in seconds rather than minutes. But now more than a century and a quarter after its first appearance, the audience has adjusted to it and made Falstaff a firm part of the standard opera repertory. Operbase.com ranks it 30th worldwide, by frequency of performance, among all the world’s opera houses during the 2017-18 season.
The subject of this post is a performance of the opera in 1949 lead by Fritz Reiner. The Hungarian born Maestro had made a sensational Met debut, along with Ljuba Welitsch, just 22 days earlier. The three performances of Falstaff he conducted in 1949 were the only Italian operas he led during his Met career (156 shows) – 1950 to 1953, when he left to take over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Falstaff is a conductor’s opera requiring complete mastery of the complex dynamics, orchestration, and elaborate vocal writing of Verdi’s final opera. Reiner’s direction is flawless perhaps the best I’ve yet heard in performance or on recordings. Given the pace Reiner takes it’s hard to believe that his singers were in costume and were acting as well as singing. He had a great cast, listed below. Leonard Warren was the definitive Verdi baritone of his era. He only sang Falstaff at the met 5 times. Twice in English and three times with Reiner in Italian. Rudolf Bing didn’t stage the opera after he assumed directorship of the Met in 1950 until Warren was dead. Falstaff didn’t reappear again until 1964 when Leonard Bernstein conducted a new production by Franco Zeffirelli; his debut at the Met.
In his memoirs Bing said he didn’t do the opera in the 50s because Warren would want to sing the title role. After listening to Warren’s performance as the fat knight I can’t understand the problem he had with Warren in a comic role. Vocally, he’s terrific. I can’t assess his acting, but I think Bing made a big mistake denying the Met’s audience the opportunity to hear Warren in more performances of Falstaff.
Giuseppe Valdengo is a superb Ford. A short time after this performance he did Falstaff, rather than Ford, under Toscanini. That recording is still available. Giuseppe Di Stefano would soon become too famous to sing the important, but smallish part of Fenton. The rest of the cast are all first rate.
The link that follows will allow you to listen to or download the complete performance under Reiner’s baton. The sound is barely acceptable, if that. But the rendition of Verdi’s ultimate masterpiece is so compelling that you might give it a shot. Verdi Falstaff Met 1949 Reiner
Metropolitan Opera House
February 26, 1949
Giuseppe Verdi–Arrigo Boito
Sir John Falstaff…….Leonard Warren
Alice Ford…………..Regina Resnik
Dame Quickly…………Cloe Elmo
Fenton………………Giuseppe Di Stefano
Meg Page…………….Martha Lipton
Dr. Cajus……………Leslie Chabay
Bardolfo…………….Alessio De Paolis