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PBS does injustice to Verdi's `Falstaff'

Verdi's final masterpiece, ``Falstaff,'' is a comedy laced with humanity and a deep-rooted compassion for foibles -- vanity, gullibility, mistrust, etc. Verdi's librettist, Arrigo Boito, tailored Shakespeare's Falstaff to a three-act jewel of a libretto, and Verdi supplied it with music that is at once ebullient, tender, and compassionate.

The PBS airing of ``Falstaff,'' to be seen on Friday, Dec. 13 (stereo simulcast in most areas), offers Gabriel Bacquier in the title role. He plays Falstaff as a lovable rogue -- irascible, blind to his obvious faults, good-natured yet quarrelsome, infinitely dupable. And there ends the particular merit of the TV production, filmed in 1979 under the direction of Goetz Friedrich. Sir Georg Solti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in a chilly performance full of dazzling orchestral detail but lacking

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pliancy or wit. The singing is all considerably below an international standard, mostly with names that even the most dedicated of opera followers are not likely to know.

The sets are busy, the staging and camera work overly fussy. It is hard, finally, to get any sense of what the people involved here really thought ``Falstaff'' was about. Perhaps this is why the script refers to Verdi's ``ambivalent lack of interest in anything more serious than an interrupted flirtation or a midight marriage in masks.''

This thoughtless and offensive statement comes during a post-opera comparison of visions of the Fat Knight between Verdi and film director Orson Welles. Despite the dramatic footage from Welles's ``Chimes at Midnight,'' the script shrilly lauds Welles's dramatic vision at the expense of Verdi's compassionate masterwork.

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