Ringholz, D. Brooks, Ziegler; R. Croft, Gardner, Feller, del Carlo; Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Östman. Arthaus Musik 102 306, 145 mins., subtitled
Hearing Antonio Salieri's 1799 Falstaff, one of his final stage works, is a bit like hearing outtakes from the three Mozart–da Ponte masterworks. Salieri never attains the inspired level of the younger Mozart, but there are many charming (if often short-breathed) melodies and felicities of orchestration, and the fluidity of structure — fortepiano-accompanied secco recitative melting in and out of accompagnato, arioso and ensemble — proves deft and interesting. Librettist Carlo Prospero Defranceschi was no da Ponte either (the short scenes tend to end without a "button," in strings of recit), but there is considerable wit in the banter, and the choices made in adapting Shakespeare's comedy are interesting both in and of themselves and in how they differ from the more famous operatic treatments by Otto Nicolai and Verdi.
Expect no young lovers; both husbands (here, Ford and Slender) are present, though the Fords have the biggest emotional stake; there's no Quickly, so the three (!) scenes of Falstaff's being lured out for punishment involve either the servant Betty or Mistress Ford masquerading as a German girl. The latter invention afforded the composer the chance to treat his Viennese public to two macaronic comedy scenes and some Papagena-like capering by the leading lady. As in Shakespeare, Ford is not clued in to his wife's plot by the (here offstage) dumping of the clothes basket into the Thames, so his jealousy fuels a second invasion of their home, forcing Falstaff into travesti drag as a cook's elderly aunt given to telling (malign) fortunes. The latter scene falls a bit flat, but the treatment of Bardolph (there's neither Pistol nor Caius) as a kind of a superannuated Leporello provides many funny moments.
Unfortunately, the catastrophically imprecise and forced rhyming translation used for English subtitles here detracts from the generally highly positive impression left by this 1995 live performance from the Schwetzingen Festival. Despite a few too many circular chases and dances, Michael Hampe's production — in spare decor and fine Victorian-era costumes by Carlo Tommasi — proves highly enjoyable. Hampe has a great asset in John Del Carlo, a natural for this version of the gluttonous knight and — though fewer buffo squeaks in recit could be imagined — in fine vocal fettle. American soprano Teresa Ringholz enjoyed a long Cologne-based European career; her Kathy Najimy-like Alice Ford offers high spirits and very fine singing. Ford has Salieri's best music, its emotional depth and technical makeup clearly modeled on that of Così's Ferrando; Richard Croft sings with outstanding beauty and artistry. As the Slenders, Delores Ziegler (who has a short, terrifying Fiordiligi-like opera-seria parody solo) and Jake Gardner also give amusing, attractive performances, despite occasional iffy pitch. Darla Brooks makes a fluid, energetic Betty, and Carlos Feller's grumpy Bardolph is a well-inflected gem. Arnold Östman maintains good ensemble, and his orchestral forces supply lovely solo and obbligato lines when needed.
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