PERFORMER: Jean-Philippe Lafont, Hillevi Martinpelto, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Sara Mingardo, Rebecca Evans, Antonello Palombi, Eirian James; Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 462 603-2
Here is the most exciting Verdi opera recording to appear in a while. This first ever period-instrument Falstaff explodes with all the tiny nuances and details that lurk in Verdi’s mercurial and protean score. While the extreme speeds and forward drive suggest the influence of Toscanini’s famous account, the tonal refinement and the lovingly nurtured lyrical moments recall Karajan’s version for EMI. Like the Karajan, this set has luxury casting. If Jean-Philippe Lafont’s fat knight is not as ideally rounded in tone as the best Falstaffs, he certainly fleshes out a psychologically rounded characterisation. Hillevi Martinpelto as Alice Ford gets the laughter into her voice in a way that seemed forced with Schwarzkopf for Karajan. Sara Mingardo plays Mistress Quickly as feminine and seductive as opposed to blowsy or baritonal which is a refreshing change, while Anthony Michaels-Moore captures Ford’s dark, corroding jealousy. In the past there was a fairly clear choice between Toscanini and the EMI Karajan. The raw physical energy of the Toscanini seemed to capture the bawdiness of the original Shakespeare; for those who were put off by the uneven casting and the famously boxy acoustics of NBC’s Studio 8H there was always the perfectly blended and perfectly cast EMI Karajan as an alternative. Now we have Gardiner’s third way, which manages to combine the virtues of both. Toscanini’s Falstaff is so much more than the sum of its parts and remains one of the truly great opera recordings. But for a single version of Verdi’s comic masterpiece, Gardiner is now the one to go for.