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M. Moore, Mentzer; Schukoff, Lynch, Robertson, Breault; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Schirmer. English text. Pentatone Classics PTC 5186 445
Gordon Getty's Falstaff opera, Plump Jack, has been gestating since at least 1985, when one early scene was performed with the San Francisco Symphony. Getty says he hears movie music in his opera more than any specific classical influences, and indeed, like the best film composers, he has a sure instinct for using bold, primary colors to tell a story. Even when his vocal melodies occasionally meander, the orchestra provides imaginative texture and characterization. And one always hears Getty's reverence for the beauty of Shakespeare's language. He adapted his libretto with great fidelity from the two Henry IV plays and Henry V.
In general, Getty handles his self-avowedly conservative musical language with skill and sophistication. One standout passage is Henry IV's lament for what he foresees as the decline of the kingdom under his son Hal, a thoughtful, mournfully effective blend of vivid accompaniment with an expressive vocal line. Henry's deathbed scene is also emotionally potent; Getty seems to be at his most eloquent with the aging king. (Soprano Melody Moore, fervently moving as Clarence, Henry's grieving younger son, also makes a strong impression in this scene.) The regal bass-baritone Christopher Robertson, who plays King Henry as well as Pistol, one of Falstaff's comrades, turns in two terrific performances.
The dramatic high point of the opera occurs when Hal (tenor Nikolai Schukoff), the newly crowned Henry V, rebuffs his old crony Falstaff at the inauguration. The painful string tremolos deliver the message with cutting certainty, and the new king ends his long denunciation ("Not to come near our person by ten mile") on repeated, ringing high Gs. Schukoff is quite devastating in this monologue, which provides an impressive contrast to his beautiful Scene 2 aria, a sincere, triadic and touching appeal to his father for forgiveness.
If it starts to sound like Falstaff is eclipsed by some of the surrounding players in this opera, it's certainly through no fault of Lester Lynch and his impressive, appropriately weighty baritone. Yet Getty, despite his obvious reverence and affection for the character, hasn't lavished on Falstaff quite the same level of invention he has on some of the others. We certainly get the text, however — a tribute to Getty's prosody and Lynch's diction. Lynch seems to sum up the what-might-have-been for his character with the resounding line "Banish Plump Jack, and banish all the world" — a powerful moment that the rest of the opera doesn't quite live up to.
The "Lament for Falstaff" in the last scene starts with a brief funeral march sung by Pistol and the Falstaffians, compelling enough that it could easily have been extended. Hostess Quickly describes Falstaff's death, amid harpsichord and clanging mallets, in a beautifully dramatized monologue, grippingly delivered by Susanne Mentzer. The score then turns rousing and military, leading to brass and full chorus. The materials for this end sequence are assembled and paced with a sure hand, and Getty has the courage to end the opera softly, rather than with a bang. It's hard to imagine a better performance of this eminently appealing score than the stirring and pristine one provided here by Ulf Schirmer and the Münchner Rundfunkorchester.
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