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Some point?

Tony Britten's 'new version'
of Verdi's Falstaff -
reviewed by

'Shame on him ...'

Falstaff. © 2008 Signum Records

I turned the brochure for this DVD upside-down and inside-out to discover the name of the orchestra and conductor entrusted with revealing the miracle of Verdi's last opera. As scene after scene went by with hardly an echo of Verdi's scoring, I waited with impatience for any hint in the end credits, where indeed it was revealed that the opera had been 'orchestrated by Tony Britten'. Shame on him, not so much for producing a budget version of Falstaff that may indeed entice a few curious listeners to sample the real thing, but for seeking to cover his tracks till the very last moment. His small chamber group (no violins) would be wise not even to attempt an apology to the notoriously short-fused Verdi.

Shakespeare's Merry Wives is a poor, rambling play. Boito, with the surest of touches, made of his libretto a taut and dramatic structure, and mightily magnified his Falstaff by incorporating hints about him from Henry IV I and II. Verdi's affection for the fat knight of long ago speaks from every bar of his wondrous score. By transferring the action of the opera to our own sleazy age, Mr Britten has turned a playful tale of Elizabethan England into an entertaining but unremarkable story that might have been considered worthy of a few inches in the News of the World.

The scene is set at once in a Norfolk golf club, with a mildly corpulent Falstaff at the bar.

Mr Britten informs us that he is far too fat to play golf, and that in any case nobody would want to play with him. The problem of course is how to settle his monstrous bar bill.

Watch and listen -- chapter 1, 0:00-1:34
© 2006 Capriol Films Ltd, 2008 Signum Records

The solution is to make an assault on the merry wives in their typically suburban homes. They are indeed competently sung, but here one so misses the thistledown lightness of Verdi's orchestra, or indeed a conductor to keep the scherzo textures effervescent and buoyant.

Watch and listen -- chapter 3, 15:26-17:00
© 2006 Capriol Films Ltd, 2008 Signum Records

It is always a joy to wander the luxuriant green of the golf course, setting for so many of the scenes. Nanetta and Fenton are quite the most attractive characters in this production, as they play hide-and-seek on the green or among the surrounding trees. Verdi's evanescent music for them is a constant bewitchment.

Watch and listen -- chapter 5, 0:00-1:00
© 2006 Capriol Films Ltd, 2008 Signum Records

Less acceptable is the brief shot of them naked in the bath together. A main delight in most productions is Verdi's portrayal of Mistress Quickly, in which he indicates her every gesture as she entices Falstaff to his folly. Here she is but another Windsor wife from next door handing over a naughty message.

Watch and listen -- chapter 8, 32:33-33:40
© 2006 Capriol Films Ltd, 2008 Signum Records

Falstaff's attempted seduction of Alice Ford is more suggestive than Shakespeare or Verdi would have countenanced; but in any case, the question is what to do with him when the furious Ford and his accomplices are approaching for vengeance. The traditional laundry basket and subsequent dousing in the Thames is hardly suitable in houses long equipped with the latest washing machines, so Falstaff has somehow to be stuffed into an elderly clothes cupboard on the stairs, which is to be replaced with something more in current fashion.

Watch and listen -- chapter 12, 66:30-68:20
© 2006 Capriol Films Ltd, 2008 Signum Records

It is the last scene of all that most misses Verdi's magic. With no regiment of child fairies to pinch and tease the wailing Falstaff, and no firefly orchestra to bewitch Windsor forest into some other-world of enchantment, one begins to wonder why Falstaff is all but naked beneath his cloak at midnight during what may be a typical English summer. Of course the final fugue can hardly fail.

Watch and listen -- chapter 23, 112:48-113:42
© 2006 Capriol Films Ltd, 2008 Signum Records

As a black-and-white introduction to Verdi's opera, suitable for schools or village halls (though in both cases I would suggest less alcohol), Mr Britten's effort maybe has some point; but as a 'new version' of Falstaff on DVD it can only mislead.

Copyright © 29 October 2008 Robert Anderson, Cairo, Egypt



SIGDVD001 PAL DVD Region 0 16:19 AC3 5.1 / PCM Stereo NEW RELEASE 118' 2006 Capriol Films Ltd / 2008 Signum Records

Ian Jervis, John Falstaff
Jan Hartley, Alice Ford
Julian Forsyth, Francis Ford QC
Simon Butteriss, Doctor Cajus
Daniel Gillingwater, Bardolph
Simon Masterton Smith, Pistol
Marilyn Cutts, Mrs Quickly
Rosamund Shelley, Meg Page
Katie Lovell, Nanetta Ford
Andy Morton, Fenton

Falstaff in a new version by Tony Britten, based on the opera by Verdi and Boito

Act 1, Scene 1 - The members' bar
Falstaff's plan
Act 1, Scene 2 - The ladies foursome
Sneaking to Francis Ford QC
The young lovers
The ladies are plotting
The octet
Act 2, Scene 1 - Mrs Quickly's proposition
Signor Fontana
Act 2, Scene 2 - Alice Ford's house
The big seduction
Ford is home!
Bathroom action
Act 3, Scene 1 - off to the dump
Falstaff the health hazard
Mrs Quickly tries again
Alice and Ford counter-plotting
Act 3, Scene 2 - Herne's oak
Herne the horny hunter
Wood nymphs and fairies
The revenge of the Mafia
The denouement
The fugue
End titles

Behind the scenes documentary


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