Make no mistake, Verdi´s "Falstaff" is one of the very best comedies in music, along with Mozart´s "Marriage of Figaro", Rossini´s "Barber..." and Wagner´s "The Mastersingers". I have often impugned Pedro Pablo García Caffi (the Colón Director) on the matter of wrong repertoire choices, but surely he is right in vindicating "Falstaff", the victim of labor troubles in 2010 (only one performance was offered before strikes disrupted the season).
Few composers have been at their best in their old age; only Leos Janácek comes to my mind as a prime example. And it is certainly marvelous to think that the most complex and accomplished Verdian operas were finished in 1887 ("Otello", at 73) and 1893 ("Falstaff", at 79). The peasant from Busseto kept refining his tools and ameliorating his technique decade after decade, bringing them to a level that has proved unattainable by any other Italian composer.
Verdi (as did Berlioz) had a lifelong admiration for Shakespeare and gave his best to the greatest playright in history; "Macbeth", even in its original 1847 version (revised 1865), is the most advanced and interesting of his early works. And unfortunately he never went ahead with a planned "King Lear", which could have been amazing.
As happened with "Otello", he had the collaboration as librettist of Arrigo Boito, learned and subtle writer who in both cases did a wonderful job, albeit too precious (even Italians find words they didn´t know existed). His basis was "The Merry Wives of Windsor", though with some elements taken from "Henry IV" but eschewing completely his adventures with Prince Hal and his discomfiture after being thrown out of court by the Prince when he became King Henry V (these scenes are in "Henry IV"); one main element was taken from "Henry IV", the magnificent "scena" about "the honour" that closes the First Tableau.
Although there was a youthful Verdian comedy, "Un giorno di regno" (seen in recent years in BA), and which by the way is much better than what many commentators say, and there were comic elements in "Un Ballo in Maschera" or in "La Forza del Destino" (Melitone), they are poor antecedents for the triumphant celebration of life we have in "Falstaff".
In truth, the protagonist is mainly interested in food, drink and sex, and he shows little spirituality; in politically incorrect tirades he says uncomfortable verities about the nature of man, and surely we see many elements of our current reality in them. For great comedy always has its tragic side. The story is the monumental chastising joke "perpetrated" by the Merry Wives on the obese, sensual old man .
I absolutely love this creation, and to me this through-composed opera is his very best. Bred on the reference recorded versions by Toscanini and Karajan (his first) which I met when I was in my early teens, I had the good fortune of seeing and hearing the greatest Falstaff in my experience, Giuseppe Taddei, in 1954. I greatly admired the subtle interpretations of Renato Bruson and Geraint Evans, but Taddei was my model, and I suppose he is a great inspiration for Ambrogio Maestri, who did in the recent performances the most convincing Falstaff seen in Buenos Aires since Taddei. He has it all: the "physique du rôle" (a huge man both in height and girth), a powerful, true baritone; and real talent for acting.
Two other singers were quite good, and in both cases they replaced the originally announced Italians, Aida Garifullina and Simone Piazzola (is the Colón short on dollars?). Thus, Paula Almerares was a radiant Nannetta in very good voice, and Fabián Veloz as Ford proved again that he is our best Verdian baritone. The debut of the famous Barbara Frittoli (Alice) was less starry than I hoped: the volume was a bit thin and the timbre less attractive, but she is elegant and professional in her late forties. Our Guadalupe Barrientos was a good Meg, more forward and bigger-voiced than most.
The others were less positive. The best of that group were Falstaff´s servants, Bardolfo (Juan Borja) and Gustavo Gibert (Pistola); it isn´t their fault if the producer lacked imagination for their movements. Emanuele D´Aguanno (debut) was a correct tenorino, no more, as Fenton. Elisabetta Fiorillo (Mrs. Quickly) has the heavy contralto lows required, but as she goes up she becomes very shrill, and her interpretation was too gross. Sergio Spina unmercifully bawled his way as Dr. Cajus; he may be angry but he is still supposed to be singing Verdi.
Roberto Paternostro was a rather wan conductor, who didn´t get enough presence and brilliance from the orchestra (although he had reasonable tempi), and more seriously didn´t obtain from the singers enough precision in the perilous ensembles. The Choir under Miguel Martínez was a good deal better.
Strangely, Mexican producer Arturo Gama (debut) didn´t work with his own team but with local collaborators: Juan Carlos Greco (stage designs and lighting) and Aníbal Lápiz (costumes). Only the latter were satisfactory in a staging that fell short in visual attraction and ambience, distorting some basic elements such as the tree in the last Tableau and showing little congruity, but at least it was far from the disastrous "Konzept-Regies" Gama learned when he was at the Berlin Komische Oper. Nostalgia overwhelmed me when I remembered the marvelous Zeffirelli production I saw in Rome back in 1964.
For Buenos Aires Herald