Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff
Giuseppe Valdengo, baritone, (Falstaff), Herva Nelli, soprano, (Alice Ford), Man Merriman, mezzo-soprano, (Meg Page), Cloe Elmo, mezzo-soprano, (Mistress Quickly), Frank Guarrera, baritone, (Ford), Teresa Stich-Randall, soprano (Nanetta), Antonio Madasi (Fenton), Robert Shaw Chorale, NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, cond.
RCA Red Seal 72372 (2 CDs) ( B)  (ADD) TT: 1:58:40

The relationship between Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini is well known and documented. It was in Rio de Janeiro on June 30, 1886 that a 19-year old Toscanini was pressed into service to make his last-second conducting debut. The opera was Verdi’s Aida. The following year, Toscanini was a member of the cello section of the La Scala Orchestra for the premiere of Verdi’s penultimate opera Otello. During rehearsals, Verdi came down to the orchestra pit and chided Toscanini for not playing loudly enough during the introduction to the love duet that concludes the first act.

That encounter, quite understandably, made a profound impression on the young Toscanini. But the music of Otello made an even greater impression. After the triumphant February 5, 1887 premiere, Toscanini ran home, woke up his mother in the middle of the night and exclaimed, “Mama, Verdi is a genius! Down on your knees to Verdi, down on your knees to Verdi!” One presumes Mama Toscanini complied.  In subsequent years, Toscanini had the opportunity to meet with Verdi and discuss the interpretation of his music. When Verdi died in 1901, at the age of 88, it was Toscanini, now Music Director of La Scala, who led a tribute to Italy’s most beloved and revered composer.

None of this is meant to suggest that a Toscanini recording of Verdi represents the music precisely the way the composer intended. But there is no question that these recordings do provide an invaluable conduit from composer to interpreter to our ears. As a result, each Toscanini recording of Verdi commands repeated listening and study.

That is certainly the case with this 1950 performance of Verdi’s last opera Falstaff, recorded at Studio 8-H on two consecutive broadcasts of April 1 and 8. There is an earlier Toscanini recording of Falstaff, preserved from a 1936 Salzburg broadcast. It is a magnificent rendition, but the sound of all releases to date is so wretched that I can recommend it only to the most seasoned veterans of historic recordings.  No such apologies need be made for the 1950 broadcast, one of the finest in the series of operas Toscanini broadcast with his NBC Symphony Orchestra. According to the liner notes of the superb Toscanini biographer Harvey Sachs, piano rehearsals for the cast averaged six hours a day for a period of six weeks. That preparation is certainly evident in a performance that crackles with fire, precision, and nuance from the boisterous opening measures to the concluding fugue. Perhaps this Falstaff does not have quite the flexibility of the 1936 Salzburg performance. But you have to make your way through a daunting sonic haze to arrive at that determination. Among available commercial recordings, Toscanini’s 1950 broadcast remains the finest conducted Falstaff.

The title role in the 1950 broadcast is sung by  Italian baritone Giuseppe Valdengo, whose rather light, lyric voice was not a “natural” for the rotund Sir John. However, Valdengo was always a resourceful performer, with superb diction and a keen sense of theatricality. Those attributes, coupled with an extended period of preparation with Toscanini (beginning seven months before the broadcast) produced a superb performance. In fact, I would rank Valdengo’s Falstaff, along with those of Geraint Evans (London), Giuseppe Taddei (in an early Cetra recording), and Tito Gobbi (EMI), as the finest on disc.  The rest of the cast may not be quite as impressive as Valdengo, but they are more than adequate to the task. Particularly notable are the lively contributions of Herva Nelli as Alice Ford, Frank Guarrera as her husband, Nan Merriman as Meg Page, and Cloe Elmo as Mistress Quickly.

This performance has long been available on various LP releases. Ten years ago, RCA issued the recording on CD, as part of its comprehensive Gold Seal “Arturo Toscanini Collection.” It was a fine remastering, offering marvelous detail, albeit reflecting the somewhat dry acoustic typical of Studio 8-H.

Now, RCA offers a new CD issue, “digitally remastered using UV22 Super CD Encoding.” There is no question that the sound offers greater fullness and warmth than its D predecessor. However, that sonic richness seems to have been obtained via the use of added resonance. As a result, the new mastering does not provide the almost clinical detail of the first CD issue.

Another interesting tidbit:  At the start of Act I, Dr. Caius accuses Falstaff “Hai battuto i miei servi!” (“You have beaten my servants!”). On this new set, Carelli sings some combination of vowels and consonants, but certainly not what librettist Arrigo Boito wrote.  This gaffe would be of small consequence, but for the fact that in the previous CD issue (and, as far as I can recall, all prior LP releases), Carelli sings the line correctly. Obviously, RCA corrected the mistake by splicing in the line, either as recorded at the dress rehearsal, or at a subsequent patch-up session. I did not hear any other such blatant miscues. But why RCA chose not to make this correction in its latest release is a mystery.I suspect that this latest reissue of the Toscanini Falstaff will supplant the earlier CD release. If you can still find the 1990 Gold Seal edition, I would recommend that you purchase it. If that quest proves unsuccessful, the new issue offers an acceptable, if not ideal, presentation of one of the greatest opera recordings of all time. It is a true “desert island” recording, one that belongs in every collector’s library.

K.M. (May 2000)