Picks and Pans Review: Verdi: Falstaff

updated 04/20/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/20/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Herbert von Karajan, Vienna Philharmonic

At the February 1893 premiere of Falstaff, composer Giuseppe Verdi (still slim and vibrant at 80, with kindly eyes and bushy white beard) opened the door of his Milan hotel suite and beheld a virtual garden of bouquets, a huge mound of telegrams and a bronze crown propped on an easel, a gift from the hotel's owner. None of this offended Verdi because he considered the masses the supreme judges of his art. An innkeeper's son, he proudly called himself a "contadino," or peasant, all his life. Falstaff, Verdi's last opera, has always delighted audiences with its broad comedy and satirical insights into vanity, lust, jealousy and honor. It took time, though, for its true genius to be appreciated. As music, Falstaff is prophetically innovative. In place of formal arias, Verdi shaped his bounteous melodies to enhance and comment upon each line of Arrigo Boito's almost conversational libretto (adapted from Shakespeare). The result is, by operatic standards, unusually naturalistic and lifelike—and also the kind of melodic banquet ideally served by records. This 128-minute version boasts immaculate digital sound and an impeccable cast headed by Giuseppe Taddei as the rascally knight Falstaff. If von Karajan's studied pace sacrifices some of the ebullience that marked Leonard Bernstein's 1967 rendition, it lets one savor—rather than gulp—the glories of the score.

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