Double Play: Fat knight on the move: Verdi: Falstaff: Juan Pons, Daniela Dessi, Roberto Frontali, Ramon Vargas, Maureen O'Flynn, Orchestra & Chorus of La Scala, Milan / Riccardo Muti

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The Independent Culture
IN MUSIC it isn't only the young who provide the surprises. Vaughan Williams produced his most desolate, uncompromising work, the Sixth Symphony, at 75; Haydn revolutionised orchestral sound in his seventies with The Seasons. And what about Janacek? But most astonishing of all was Verdi, reborn as a great comic opera composer at 80, writing with enough vigour and imagination for a cycle of operas, not simply one compact masterpiece.

Riccardo Muti brings plenty of his own characteristic muscular energy to this La Scala performance (or rather performances, since two recording dates are given in the booklet). The result is a Falstaff that's always on the move - few concessions to the fat knight's age or size here.

The cast seems well adapted to the Muti approach on the whole. Singing is quick-fire in the ensembles and in terms of pitch and rhythm it's a lot cleaner that in many a live Falstaff. But in this case cleanliness isn't quite next to godliness.

Benjamin Luxon, burdened with tinnitus in the recent ENO production, showed that you can miss notes in barrel-fulls and still get the fun of the piece across. Juan Pons is a much more precise, vocally more secure Falstaff, but treasurable moments often glide past without leaving much of an impression - his sodden grumbling at the wickedness of the world ('Mondro ladro. Mondo rubaldo'), his craven terror as the supposed fairies taunt and pinch him into contrition, or his bouncing back at the end. There's energy, but not a lot of fun.

Perhaps Muti is just too ruthless, too single-minded for this richly layered piece. The love music between Fenton and Nannetta - cunningly dispersed throughout the opera rather than concentrated in a few key scenes - fails to spread the expected rosy glow over the action. The singers, Ramon Vargas and Maureen O'Flynn, are accomplished and pleasant-toned enough, but there's not a great deal of tenderness. Perhaps they might have blossomed for someone else; Muti doesn't give the impression of being keen to linger.

He's much more stirring in the darker moments, supporting Mistress Quickly's ghostly scene-setting in Act 3, for instance; we could almost be on Macbeth territory there. A recording that focused more intimately on the singers might have given a warmer impression, but I can't help noticing that, while the La Scala audience claps and cheers at the final curtain, there doesn't seem to be much laughter along the way.

Compare that with John Eliot Gardiner's recent live Figaro - there was a performance, as Falstaff puts it, 'to make the heart vibrate'. Stephen Johnson

FALSTAFF doesn't begin: in a sense, it's already begun. When Verdi throws down that explosive opening chord, it's like jumping on board a fast-moving vehicle. You're there: the Garter Inn, mid-action, virtually mid-sentence. The rush of energy, the speed of utterance is irresistible. And remains so.

Muti's first chord is blunt and oddly muffled - a rude reminder of the deadening effect of the La Scala acoustic. But you get used to it. This, after all, is where Falstaff first sprang to life, and there's something about the atmosphere of the house that is palpable even through a recording (admittedly a live one).

Needless to say, the bustle of the stage action is clearly audible, down to creaking boards on the fairies' entrance in Windsor Park. And yes, that is an intrusion, particularly since Verdi's orchestra miraculously details every movement, every facial expression, every flatulent sound.

Muti might have been ruder, more capricious, funnier. This Falstaff doesn't sizzle a la Toscanini. Muti's reverence for the score is almost too apparent. Heaven forbid that its exuberance should spill over into fleeting vulgarity, that the impulsiveness of the comedy should momentarily get the better of him.

Tempi are just a shade inhibited for my taste. It's the most musical of readings, lovingly shaped, brilliantly articulated: Muti really pulls focus on the intricacies of Verdi's breathtaking ensembles. But he lets go only once: as Ford's jealousy boils over in the tremendous orchestral release at the climax of his monologue. A serious moment. That tells you a lot about the performance.

It's very strongly cast, probably better sung than any recording since the Gobbi / Karajan set. Juan Pons' Falstaff is a youngish voice in character make-up - and that's as it should be, for the role really needs singing and Pons is able to give us the resonance and command of noble delusions, the finesse and foxy head-voice of awkward airs and graces, as well as the unwashed bluff and bluster of the fat knight.

Roberto Frontali's lean Ford is well contrasted - I like the snarl in the tone - and Bernadette Manca di Nissa's Quickly reiterates her obsequious address ('Reverenza]') with a voice like an over-ripe plum. Daniela Dessi's Alice is the genuine article in the Italianate cast of her phrases (not a great voice but a lovely singer), and you can sense Muti's coaching and coaxing in the outstanding Fenton and Nannetta of Ramon Vargas and Maureen O'Flynn, their nocturnal sweet nothings exquisitely turned in the final scene.

All come together with great aplomb in that joyous final fugue: 'Man is born a jester,' the text proclaims. I'm just not convinced Muti was.

Edward Seckerson