Falstaff -- There are four extant operas based on Shakespeare’s "The Merry Wives of Windsor." The most noted is Verdi’s "Falstaff" (1892) with a superior libretto by Arrigo Boito. Next in popularity (well, at least the overture is) is Nicolai’s "Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor" (1849) which follows the play more faithfully than do the other versions.
There is the not as well-known as it should be Vaughan Williams’ "Sir John in Love" (1928), which boasts the integration of the loveliest of English folk songs with what remains of the original play. I should mention that the tavern scene from "Henry IV, Part I" is set to music in Holst’s "At the Boar’s Head" (1924).
The fourth (though earliest) translation of the play into an opera is "Falstaff" (1799) by no less a composer than Antonio Salieri. No matter what Mozart’s opinion of him in the play "Amadeus," Salieri was a most respected composer in his day and far more popular than Mozart. And his "Falstaff" is a most enjoyable opera buffa, thoroughly composed in the traditions of that day, and time would be wasted to compare it with those versions yet to be written.
Several years ago, ArtHaus Musik released a DVD containing a 1995 performance of Salieri’s "Falstaff" from the Schwetzingen Festival, conducted by Arnold Ostman. It has just been re-released on the same label with a different cover and with shorter program notes. I can heartily recommend seeing it for both its historical value, its own merits, and -- for those who insist -- as a chance to compare it with the other works to follow.
Librettist Prospero Defranceschi cut the play down to its essential Falstaff/Wives plot, cut out the lovers Ann Page and Fenton, and for some reason changed Mr. and Mrs. Page to Mr. and Mrs. Slender. All the other secondary characters are not to be found here.
There are a little more (perhaps a lot more) "dry" recitatives than modern audiences would care to have. But one such sequence has Mrs. Ford in disguise luring Falstaff into his first misadventure by pretending to speak German mixed with a little English, while Falstaff sings in English mixed with a little German and even bits of French. Of course, the "English" is in Italian, which gives the joke a double dose of farce.
Although some have criticized the singing, I find it pleasant enough from this cast of mostly American vocalists: John Del Carlo (Falstaff), Teresa Ringholz (Mrs. Ford), Richard Croft (Mr. Ford), Delores Ziegler (Mrs. Slender), Jake Gardner (Mr. Slender) and Darla Brooks (Betty, the Ford’s maid). Veteran buffa specialist Carlos Feller provides a very Italianate Bardolfo.
Del Carlo is quite tall and looks a rather handsome Falstaff, except for his paunch that is girdled round with three belts. Ringholz is quite good in her disguises and shows a good comic flair. The cast seems to be enjoying themselves on the small festival stage. My only objections are having the subtitles in rhyme, a practice that brings most of us further from the exact meaning of the Italian; and the lack of magic in Salieri’s music for the final scene in the forest. Von Weber will show how to be spooky in his score to "Der Freischutz" (1820).
The running time is 145 minutes and the subtitles are in four languages (but not including Italian).
Fran Hals -- Arthaus Musik has turned out some very nice, if dryly narrated, DVD sets about paintings. The latest arrival is a 50-minute consideration of the life, times and works of Frans Hals (1582-1666). Titled simply "Frans Hals of Antwerp," it is among the best of the Arthaus series.
Since Hals painted mostly portraits, the examples tend to become repetitious; but those faces, drawn in bold strokes of the brush, are fascinating. His genre paintings (those showing everyday life in his hometown) are few but impressive, while his studies of prominent groups of men might have lost their luster over the centuries but not their subjects’ sense of importance.
As with Shakespeare, the details of Hals’ life are fuzzy (which does not mean that some great lord painted his works!), but his works are fascinating in themselves. I can surely recommend this DVD highly. The picture is in 4:3 format and there are no English subtitles but the narrator speaks clearly enough.
Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays.