New Statesman, June 1977
Some rate this the most comic of operas, with a libretto that improves on Shakespeare. To me, the comedy looks rather black, as if in mourning for all that love lost and weight gained. The plot too is arguably cold and clumsy. Falstaff is sexually humiliated in Act Two, and then sexually humiliated all over again in Act Three. Even his name suggests anti-climax, in a typical bawdy pun; collapse of stout party. And it's hard to imagine any more doleful double rebuff than being stuffed among dirty linen one day and assaulted by fairies the next. Yet such is the vigour of Verdi's invention that these repeated defeats are made to sound like comic variety and good news, broadcast on a continuous crackling carrier-wave of hilarity.
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1976 production, rehearsed by Julian Hope, cleverly exploits its own medium; but rather at the expense of the message, which I take to be Sir John in love. A credible tradition ascribes this theme to, a command from the first Elizabeth. If so, it took some three centuries to find fulfilment: The Merry Wives is more word-play than love-play and its anti-hero pursues the ladies for their purses rather than their persons. But Verdi in his 80th year knew which impulse remains the more vital at the end of the day. The Falstaff embodied in his score has admirable motives, designed to squeeze the last lingering drops of sweetness out of a wicked old-sponger. Thus the melodic lines of the love-letter, though perhaps meant as grandiloquent self-parody, encompass all the passion of an Othello. The recurring music of Nannetta and Fenton suggests Falstaff's quest for his own own lost youth, when kisses were all flame and flower (as the lovers engagingly sing). Even so bloated a bear can grow almost lank with longing for the honey-pot; hence his lilting sigh for past slenderness in Quand'ero paggio.
I felt that some of those marvellous moments were muted, while incidental or even trivial detail was emphasised. If so, both failings can be traced to the same root cause. Sight and sound were used in two different senses. The musical direction of John Pritchard successfully strove to present a continuous seamless unity, while the stage production insisted on a display of separate underlinings. For example, in the brilliant first act finale the ensemble divides into two quartets, men and women, who gabble excitedly about their various involvement in the plot. Meanwhile, as if to show that love remains the deep central theme, Fenton is left between these two chattering group to intone the slow melodies of his own private dreams and yearnings. Yet here he is made to dominate the entire stage, thus forcing the action to wear its heart on its sleeve and turning Verdi inside-out in the process. Again, in the famous Windsor Park scene the 12 differently harmonised chords embodying Falstaff's midnight hopes were turned into a mangled chime by an inept gimmick.
Whenever the eyes and ears were catered for together, there was a real feast. To lead off the fugal finale, for instance, the entry of each voice coincided with the entry of the character on stage; and that tang of theatre marinaded in music, making the scene heard, is the essence of opera. But more often the joint fare seemed to have been separately preparated. The LPO's playing, though very well done, was still not always tender enough for my taste, while the production was, in parts at least, unpalatably over-seasoned. Between the two, the singers sometimes sounded rather unsettled. Renato Capecchi as Falstaff was effective enough and, despite some lack of resonance above the stave, often impressive. But he needed the time and the tempi to relax and unbutton so as to be really comfortable in the part. On the first night he impersonated rather than identified. That could not be said of Nucci Condò. She was Quickly without delay; and because she became her part, it became her. The Fenton, Max-René Cosotti, sang agreeably of love, but he would have sounded more heartfelt with less head-tone. The American baritone Brent Ellis gave an excellent account of a very taxing role. The jealous husband Ford may have been the part that Shakespeare himself played before his sovereign. Those masochistically self-tormenting tones resound from the great plays and the sonnets; and Verdi's matching music threatens to burst the frame of the opera as well as the singer. The required intensity was tempered with the necessary restraint; a considerable artistic achievement.
Bernard Dickerson's Bardolph, Ugo Trama’s Pistol, and John Fryatt's Dr Caius were also effective portrayals, dramatically as well as vocally. As the merry wives, Reni Penkova (Meg),and Teresa Cahill (Alice) were spiritedly sportive and conspiratorial. The latter's culminating high C capped an enjoyable if not outstanding performance of a masterly score composed of wisdom and love in the C major of this life. So of course the distinguished-looking audience was mightily enthused. But I saw some thoughtful expression, especially among the weightier gentry. They were perhaps reflecting, with Shallow, that “though we are justices and doctors and churchmen, we have some salt of youth in us”, and speculating on how best to restore the savour. After all, the evening’s entertainment had presented an age problem, a drink problem, a sex problem and a weight problem; which reinforces my initial point that such a comedy is no laughing matter.