The newest addition to a crowded and distinguished DVD field for Verdi's final (greatest?) opera comes from Glyndebourne 2009. Richard Jones's production places the action in the England of the 1940s. Jones recently received brickbats for a severely updated Munich LOHENGRIN (Decca), in which Lohengrin wears a T-shirt and track pants. The temporal facelift given FALSTAFF is inoffensive, although it fails one test: the update leads nowhere that justifies it, so it seems novelty for its own sake. Say what you will about Robert Carsen's Salzburg ROSENKAVALIER (recently reissued by Arthaus; see review), but Carsen followed through on his impulse. There proved to be a rationale for his transplanting the opera to the Vienna of just prior to WW1, and his production could not have worked in the Vienna of another period, whether the 1740s (as prescribed by Strauss and von Hofmannsthal) or the 2000s. Jones's FALSTAFF is a more arbitrary affair. The Blitz does not begin in the Windsor Park scene, nor does the opera end with Fenton going off to fight the Axis powers, with the implication that he may die. The opera seems to be taking place late enough in the war for optimism and good humor, perhaps the mid-1940s. Fenton is an American GI, which creates an interesting context for his having met Nannetta, and perhaps for her father's disapproval. But as the lone way in which the time and place are relevant to the play on stage, this is thin.
The wartime setting is most welcome for allowing uni-monikered set/costume designer Ultz to give us many loving and detailed recreations of that period's clothing, architecture, and furnishings, some amusing (in Act II Scene 2, rather than strumming a lute when Falstaff arrives for the assignation, Alice puts a scratchy 78 of lute-strumming on the Fords' record player). Indeed, Ultz's craftsmanship does much to sell Jones's concept. Sets are attractive, ingenious and elaborate, and Jones creates a bustling, lively community to come and go from them. Act III Scene 1 gives us a street-level view of the Garter Inn, Falstaff's room of which is on the second floor and recessed (this works better on DVD than in the theater). That scene's monologue is delivered as a rueful life lesson to the innkeeper's rotund adolescent son, who stares and gapes at Falstaff, hardly moving for the entire scene (I was reminded of David Lynch films). Simultaneously, on the sidewalk out front, the plotters conspire, and the inn is seen as part of a city block, with supers entering and exiting shops. Windsor Park is one of the spookiest on video, and Jones and Ultz make a veritable Halloween party of the masquerade -- the update allows them to costume Ford as the Lugosi Dracula, Pistola as the Karloff Frankenstein's Monster, and Bardolfo (in drag to marry Caius, of course) as Elsa Lanchester's Bride of Frankenstein. Props are used to help the humor along and to emphasize points. At the inn, there is an orange cat (a life-like puppet, getting laughs from the Glyndebourne audience) which Falstaff tends to stroke when discussing desirable women. I will presume the subtext is clear, for further elucidation would get this review flagged. In Act I Scene 2, when the women excoriate Falstaff (and, by implication, licentious men like him) and begin to plot his comeuppance, a rowing team walks by holding a long, narrow boat overhead. Subsequently, Alice Ford removes from the ground and proudly holds a prized lettuce from a row of same. Again, the symbolism is not opaque.
Once again, we have a FALSTAFF DVD with pretty women, and their period hairstyles are as fetching as their retro clothing. Once again, the mezzo playing Quickly is the odd woman out, made to look much less attractive than the singer is in real life. The production's idea for the character is an interesting one, though. She sports a drab uniform of some military or civil-service type, an unflattering wiry hairstyle, and Coke-bottle glasses, and has a decidedly butch demeanor. She concludes Act III Scene 1 by picking up a young woman on the street, and they walk off hand in hand.
An operagoer encountering this cast in the theater would go home happy, feeling that Verdi's music had been honorably served. Once the performance is preserved on a recording to be evaluated against those in the catalogue, matters get more complicated. The FALSTAFF videography boasts Falstaffs from Taddei (young and old), Bacquier, Bruson, Plishka, Terfel, Raimondi, and Maestri; Fords from Colombo, Stilwell, Panerai, Nucci, and Frontali; Fentons from Alva, Araiza, Lopardo, Tarver, and Flórez; Alices from Carteri, Kabaivanska, Ricciarelli, Freni, and Frittoli (thrice); Quicklys from Barbieri, Valentini-Terrani, Ludwig, Horne, and Di Nissa; Nannettas from Moffo, Hendricks, Bonney, and Mula. This is to say nothing of the singers who have taken the parts on audio recordings. There is one Italian name in the Glyndebourne group, that of the Pistola (Paolo Battaglia), and the international balance shows little of "learned" italianità or Mediterranean warmth and fullness of timbre. FALSTAFF is the least vocally challenging of Verdi's standard-repertory operas -- nothing in it is as exhausting or potentially lethal as certain roles in NABUCCO, VESPRI, and OTELLO are -- but anyone who has heard FALSTAFF sung at the highest level will know what he or she is missing at key moments. Nevertheless, these cast members have their points as musicians and comedians. The best of them, perhaps, are Bülent Bezdüz's Fenton, Dina Kuznetsova's Alice Ford, Jennifer Holloway's Meg Page, Marie-Nicole Lemieux's Quickly, and Battaglia's Pistola. Christopher Purves's Falstaff is pleasantly sung and middle-of-the-road in characterization -- neither the most lovable nor the most contemptible nor the most profound Sir John. The fat suit is convincing. Had the production not continued a regrettable recent trend by having Falstaff undress in one scene, I would not have known it was padding.
Leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Maestro Vladimir Jurowski does not exceed expectations, but that is only because they were very high. He does not disappoint, either, but the reading seems still to be gestating. It is professional and vital without being as individual and striking as his best performances in German repertoire have been. The first Quickly/Falstaff meeting is conducted as though Jurowski has some booming Italian mezzo of the Golden Age in the part of Quickly; the less amply proportioned French-Canadian one he actually has is fighting to sustain and breathe. At Windsor Park, Falstaff's observation that love transforms man into a beast is rather rushed through, needing more of a beat to sink in. Jurowski is a staggeringly gifted conductor still in his thirties; as such, anything he does is of interest. Perhaps he is still finding his way in Verdi. My impression was of a very good FALSTAFF by someone who will lead great ones. Near the end of the opera, in the midst of the fugal finale, director Jones incorporates the young maestro into the staging in a way I will not spoil. It is almost worth the price of the DVD by itself. (Among great Verdi/FALSTAFF conductors, the thought of Toscanini, Karajan, or even Muti going along with it sets the head to spinning.)
Two DVDs of FALSTAFF are essential above all others: the Serafin/Graf telefilm of 1956 (on VAI; lip-synched, sadly not as well preserved as it should be, but with an extraordinary cast) and the 2001 Muti-conducted performance with reduced La Scala forces occupying the Busseto Teatro Verdi for a recreation of a 1913 production (EuroArts). Although the Jurowski/Jones is not vocally special enough to join those on the top tier, it is colorful and engaging, and a prominent place should be made for it in the ranks of the honorably mentioned.