Verdi: Falstaff
Jean-Philippe Lafont, baritone (Falstaff); Hillevi Martinpelto, soprano (Alice Ford); Eirian James, mezzo-soprano (Meg Page); Sara Mingardo, mezzo-soprano (Mistress Quickly); Anthony Michaels-Moore, baritone (Ford;, Rebecca Evans, soprano (Nanetta); Antonello Palombi, tenor (Fenton). Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre RÈvolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner, cond.
Philips 462 603 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT: 2:01:17

The booklet accompanying this new Philips recording of Verdi's final opera, Falstaff, states: "Recorded after staged performances directed by Ian Judge" In an interview, conductor John Eliot Gardiner discusses a unique aspect of these performances:

My idea was to arrange the orchestra centre-stage with the action taking place all around it, in front and behind it, so that at times -- such as the whirlwind dÈnouement to Act Two -- you never can be quite sure who are the actors, who are the players. The way Verdi manages to weave the action and music together in this final and most carefully written of operas, is breathtaking.

Our stage director, Ian Judge, and his designer, Tim Goodchild, bravely subscribed to this premise and rose to the challenge of reflecting this detailed interpenetration by presenting it visually as well as aurally.

There is no question that in Falstaff Verdi creates a remarkable partnership between vocalists and orchestra. Quite often the orchestra assumes a dramatic role that is equal -- and at times even superior -- to the singers. A great performance of Falstaff must recognize this balance and allow all of the voices -- both human and instrumental -- to receive their full due. It is the failure to achieve that delicate balance that constitutes the major shortcoming of this new Falstaff.

There is no question that John Eliot Gardiner and the period-instrument Orchestre RÈvolutionnaire et Romantique present a compelling account of the instrumental portion of the score. The pacing is lively with a constant sense of flow and momentum. The articulation is crystal-clear, with attractive spotlighting of orchestral detail. This clarity extends to vocal ensembles as well. For example, Gardiner is masterful in delineating the voices in the great ensemble that concludes the opera's Second Act.

The use of period instruments also offers interesting sonic revelations. For example, the valveless hunting-horn that opens the opera's final scene imparts a far more rustic atmosphere than does the modern French horn usually heard. In short, the Gardiner Falstaff certainly numbers among the more intriguing and compelling accounts of the orchestral portion of Verdi's comic masterpiece.

But despite the crucial role the orchestra plays in Falstaff, it is still an opera, and one that requires exceptional singers to fulfill Verdi's considerable musical and dramatic requirements. Certainly the title role, premiered by Victor Maurel (likewise the first Iago in Otello, and Tonio in I Pagliacci), requires a singing-actor of the first order. Baritone Jean-Philippe Lafont has a voice that is appropriately plump in the lower and middle registers. However virtually any note above middle "C" poses difficulties for him. Frequently Lafont has to resort to falsetto to sing such notes at softer volumes (the high "G" at the conclusion of "C'Ë dell'aria che volla" in the Act I "Honor" Monologue is little more than a squeak). When Lafont is forced to approach the upper register at full voice, the notes tend to lose focus and become unsteady.

Since much of Falstaff's music lies in this difficult region, Lafont often appears to be more concerned with negotiating the music than with offering any specific kind of characterization. As such, his assumption of the role falls quite short of the ideal, certainly well below such classic accounts as Giuseppe Valdengo (RCA), Giuseppe Taddei (Cetra), Tito Gobbi (EMI), and Sir Geraint Evans (London). A performance of Falstaff without a strong protagonist is doomed to failure. As Falstaff himself proclaims toward the opera's conclusion: "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men." On this basis alone, the Gardiner set cannot withstand comparison to the recordings listed above.

The remainder of the cast is, for the most part, certainly more than adequate although tenor Antonio Palombi does sometimes find the upper portion of Fenton's role to be a challenge. Perhaps most notable are the firm-voiced Ford of baritone Anthony Micheals-Moore, as well as sopranos Hillevi Martinpelto and Rebecca Evans, who bring attractive tonal quality to the roles of Alice and Nanetta. However they, like the remainder of the cast, offer little in the way of unique or insightful characterization.

Is it possible that John Eliot Gardiner, in his search for absolute parity between voice and orchestra in Falstaff, threw the baby out with the bath water (or in this case, Falstaff with the dirty laundry)? Arturo Toscanini's classic 1950 broadcast (RCA) demonstrates that it is possible to give the orchestra its full due, yet still allow the singers to communicate the humanity that is at the heart of this miraculous work. In that context, the Gardiner Falstaff constitutes an interesting, but flawed, experiment.

The recorded sound is rich and full with, as previously mentioned, admirable detail. However the dynamic range is unusually wide. I found that setting a level that allowed the softest portions to be heard made the loudest sections unbearable.

K.M. (Aug. 2002)