Difficult Operas and Excellent Performances
.for as difficult a work as "Falstaff" is to perform - and I think it really takes absolutely top class musicians as well as interpreters to pull it off - I'm surprised at how good so many of the recordings are.
A friend made the above observation about Falstaff and it immediately jogged my memory toward a conversation from years ago I'd had with a friend discussing the similar phenomenon of recordings and performances of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande and Berg's Lulu and Wozzeck.
Adding to the above phenomenon is the fact these works, while known, at least to a certain degree by most operagoers they are, not unlike Falstaff, true "repertoire pieces" with one encountering them with far less frequency the numerous operas making up that class.
We pondered why this is, and a lot of it boiled down to one critical component: the conductor. That the works have failed to take hold with the greater opera going public is not because of some inherent unworthiness on their part . . . to the contrary, many of the greatest musicians place these works at or near the top of their favorite and most respected works, but rather that, for any number of reasons, they do not immediately resonate with, or are perhaps misunderstood by those whose ears are trained to want more obvious (or, if one prefers, "tuneful") melodies and traditional harmonies (to say nothing of the stories themselves or their sources.
In my estimation, whenever a conductor decides to take up performances of one of these (or any one of numerous other challenging) operas), it becomes something of a special case, often feeling like a point is trying to be made. It cannot (or should not), however, prove too obvious a point since the last thing anyone wants - and which the work certainly doesn't need - is a precious performance of something many already find difficult to love. (See "backfired")
Nonetheless, by that same token, even more extraordinary care than usual needs to be taken in the selection of singers and their preparation given these operas, being neither as popular nor as frequently performed as repertory standards cannot run the risk of being given a performance even remotely close to being called "routine" (even when "routine" should be a goal of excellence).
Fortunately, the results of such herculean efforts seem to pay off in performances and/or recordings that usually serve as conformation for connoisseurs whose works these are the favorites of, and, with any luck at all, win new converts. It doesn't always work, but when it does, oh, boy . . . look out!