Although the text to Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is something of a mess and although the character of Falstaff is quite a letdown from that character in the “Henry IV” plays, the comedy has certainly inspired at least three major operas—four if you count one by Antonio Salieri. There is “Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor” by Otto Nicolai, the very English “Sir John in Love” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the greatest of them all, “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi. There are so many recordings of the Verdi work, both on CDs and DVDs, that picking out one as the “best” is a highly subjective practice.
However, I have just watched the 1979 film version “Falstaff” on a Deutsche Grammophon DVD, and I would dare to offer this as the one to own. Directed by Goetz Friedrich, it stars French singer Gabriel Bacquier in the title role, with Richard Stillwell (Ford), Max-Rene Cosotti (Fenton), Karan Armstrong (Alice), Jutta-Renate Ihloff (Nannetta), Martz Szirmay (Quickly), and Sylvia Lindenstrand (Meg). The Wiener Philharmoniker is conducted by Georg Solti.
To succeed in the title role, the actor must create a likeable Falstaff. Although what he tries to do is reprehensible, the audience must be on his side just a little. Bacquier is indeed likable, as is Donald Gramm in a Glyndebourne Opera production and as is Paul Plishka in a Metropolitan Opera production from 1993, and as Bryn Terfel is NOT in a cartoonish production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
As a film, this video offers a very fluid production. Indeed, during the German-language synopses that precede each scene, we get to see a lot of the action only implied by the libretto of Arrigo Boito: Falstaff pulling himself out of the river, the townsfolk preparing for the woodland haunting, and so on. Since the cast is lip-synching to a prerecorded soundtrack, some of the vocalizing seems too tame for what we see in their body movements; but this seems to be a problem built into doing an opera film in this manner.
The running time is 125 minutes and the subtitles are in six languages, including the original Italian. The only bonus features are promotional ones.