'Falstaff' in Los Angeles: the right people, the right touch

Carlo Maria Giulini set legendary standards in operatic performance. Fourteen years ago, he decided that his quest for quality was futile, so he stepped off the opera podium. Since then, only two opera recordings (including the recent revelatory performance of Verdi's ''Rigoletto'' on DG records) have emerged.

Now, as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he has been persuaded back into an opera pit - and in the manner this important return deserves. Verdi's ''Falstaff'' is one of the quintessential ensemble operas: The orchestra is as important as the singers. With the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the pit, and a strong cast with some of the best-known names in Italian opera today on stage, interest was sure to be running high.

DG records is on hand to record all eight performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (through May 1) for release as an album next December. In July the production and cast (but not the orchestra) move to London for six performances at Covent Garden, always a favored house for the maestro. A telecast of one of the Covent Garden evenings is projected.

Giulini is not so much the star of the evening as he is the mortar that binds each element of this production into a unique whole. The Giulini magic is accomplished through a virtual submersion into Verdi.

Throughout this second of eight performances, there was the sense of a team devoted to Verdian insight, as well as a cast beginning to relax into a performance. Whatever flaws one might pick out in some of the cast, each contributed to a tight ensemble whole, histrionically and musically. In every respect, it was the sort of nuanced collective performance that is actually lost in a 3,200-seat auditorium like the Pavilion and is usually only found in the most elevated of festival contexts.

''Falstaff'' is most often played as an opera buffa (in the comic style), though Verdi calls it a lyric comedy. And given that its roots are Shakespeare and that the work is suffused with almost Mozartean insight and humanity, it was not so surprising that maestro Giulini should choose to play down the uproarious , the slapstick, and develop the subtle, the human, the real.

Phrases that usually go by in a brilliant blaze were underplayed here to emphasize the long sweep. Ebullient wit was toned down to something less artificial, more beguilingly real, if occasionally somewhat somber. The basic pulse of tempo proved to be slower than usual, allowing time for the richness of Verdi's orchestral textures to shimmer, to enchant, to beguile.

And perhaps more crucially, Giulini asked his singers to convey the words and speech patterns of Verdi's musical line in a grand sort of recitative rather the more usual melodic style. There were moments of delicate beauty and ravishing transparency that remained fixed in the mind's ear. The final fugue blazed with deep-felt joy and celebration and a feeling of summation in the Shakespearean sense of the epilogue.

On stage, the viewpoint was consistently sustained - as well it might be, since Giulini sat in on every staging rehearsal from Day 1. Director Ronald Eyre may be new to opera (his only prior effort was a staging of Berlioz's ''Beatrice et Benedict''), but everything he has done here springs very specifically from Verdi's rich musical animation. This noncaricatured Falstaff does not do much smiling, because he believes so earnestly in everything he is doing, no matter how evidently silly.

The subplots unfold with believable people, not stereotypes. It is staging in the grand sense of the word, where every choice comes out of the music, where any ''concept'' stays within the framework of the composer's (and librettist's) outline, so that we might see them in an altered, but never distorted, light. And more often than not, Eyre lets the music carry the weight, as in the first scene of the third act, when Falstaff, bemoaning his fate, hardly moves a muscle throughout his ''Mondo ladro'' monologue.

Renato Bruson is the serious, earnest Falstaff. He sings the role handsomely (a few muffled top and inaudible low notes aside), and acts it as richly, with subtlety, humanity, dignity, and restraint - no fussy clown here. Leo Nucci was a revelation as Ford - the part was superbly acted, thrillingly sung. Giulini apparently sees Ford's monologue as the key to the moods of the entire score, so what usually passes as buffo raving was projected as a chilling nightmare, rendered with frightening intensity by maestro and baritone.

And for once, one could understand why Ford is insanely protective and jealous of his wife, Alice, so radiant of looks was Katia Ricciarelli. Though the singing per se lacked smoothness, it was, for her, an unusually animated performance, with moments of vocal gold amply evident.

As the young lovers, Barbara Hendricks floated phrase after seamless, gossamer phrase through most of the evening, and Dalmacio Gonzalez used his small but handsome tenor to fine - if slightly unmodulated - effect. Lucia Valentini-Terrani deftly etched Dame Quickly histrionically, though vocally she lacks the requisite low notes to bring this character fully to musical life. Brenda Boozer was the stronger-than-usual Meg, Michael Sells a weak Dr. Caius, and William Wildermann and Francis Egerton masterly and lovable as Bardolph and Pistol.

Hayden Griffen's sets are unfussy, evocative, and in the last act, where a flat wall becomes the huge Herne's Oak, magical.

The remaining domestic performances of Verdi's ''Falstaff'' are on April 27, 29, and May 1.

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