PERFORMER: José van Dam, Marjana Lipovsek, Paolo Coni, Luciana Serra, Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz, Susan Graham, Luca Canonici, Kim BegleyBerlin Radio Choir, Berlin PO/ Georg Solti
CATALOGUE NO: 440 650-2 DDD
At this year’s Salzburg summer festival, I endured Solti’s joyless Falstaff but have been pleasantly surprised by Decca’s live recording from the Easter event, which has only two major changes of personnel – the Ford and the orchestra. It is hard to tell why it is more successful, since the Vienna Philharmonic has far more experience of this score (and recordings with Karajan and Bernstein) to its credit than its Berlin counterpart, but perhaps that explains a fresher, more spontaneous performance of the miraculous orchestral score. In the theatre – the cavernous Grosses Festspielhaus – most of the wit, delicacy and intimacy of this gloriously conspiratorial opera evaporated. Decca’s close-up miking has certainly captured more fun in the playing and singing. But whether it challenges the classic recordings of the past is another matter.
The singing is rarely less than good – Coni’s coarse Ford, replaced by Vladimir Chernov at the summer festival, is the obvious weak link – but it rarely matches the character, the vocal individuality of the classic recorded casts. Van Dam still has plenty of voice for the title role, but his bass-baritone is a lean one: by nature a Don Quixote, he lacks the necessary aural rotundity for Falstaff. The merry wives are a good team, but Serra’s stylish, agile Alice is far too lemony in tone for this peach of a role; Lipovsek’s Quickly has a frumpy Hausfrau quality not at all to my taste, and Norberg-Schulz sings radiantly as Nannetta (she is no Freni, however, the Nannetta of Solti’s older, and preferable recording). Canonici’s Fenton is the best of the Italian contingent and the comprimarios are all excellent, but somehow this cast doesn’t gel as a team. In this, the ultimate ensemble opera, that is a grave shortcoming. Hugh Canning