Have the holidays got you down? Too much hustle and bustle? For the best attitude adjustment ever, try heading over to the Met for Robert Carsen’s production of Verdi’s “Falstaff.” You’ll find yourself walking on air.
The crowning glory of Verdi’s career, “Falstaff” distills his years of creativity to their essence. There’s not one wasted note or one errant phrase. It’s so fitting that Verdi’s final gift to the world should be a comedy whose musical pleasures never stop: the letter scene, with the Merry Wives of Windsor laughing in four-part harmony; the orchestral burst of pent-up anger that ends Ford’s “E sogno,” only to modulate to the silken strings that accompany Falstaff’s reappearance in his courting garb; that moment when we finally hear in full what the lovelorn Fenton has to say to Nanetta, only to be followed by her exquisite aria as Queen of the Fairies. As if there weren’t riches enough, the work ends with “Tutto nel mondo è burla,” a ten-part fugue that may be the most rewarding operatic conclusion ever written. Not to mention the fact that the orchestra itself never seems to stop laughing.
One of the best opera performances I ever saw was the 1992 Met revival, fortunately captured on DVD, featuring Paul Plishka as Falstaff with the incomparable quartet of Mirella Freni, Marilyn Horne, Susan Graham and Barbara Bonney. In a later season I suffered through a dead-on-arrival revival with Bryn Terfel as Falstaff, who sucked the air out of the auditorium. Even with a literally larger than life title character, this is above all an ensemble opera. Each of the ten soloists plays an important part, though it’s true some are more prominent than others, i.e., Dame Quickly. And it’s essential to have an Alice Ford who relishes the joke (which is why that Terfel revival, with Marina Mescheriakova as Alice, withered on the vine).
Robert Carsen’s version, a co-production with Covent Garden and several other companies, moves the setting to England in the 1950’s. Unlike some directors who update just for the sake of updating, Carsen honors Verdi’s (and Boito’s) intentions. And it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen costuming that so illuminates character: Quickly’s “Reverenza” ensemble, a black coat with a silk lining that matches her dress; Nanetta’s capris, Ford’s sober double-breasted gray suit, later outdone by his “Signor Fontana” outfit—pure Texas oilman, complete with fringed jacket, Stetson and bolo tie. The costumes are complemented by some marvelous sets, most prominently that fully equipped kitchen chez Ford, replete with checkered tiles, a center island and working stove.
“Falstaff” seems to have brought out Carsen’s best. The sight of Alice sailing through her kitchen atop that all-important laundry basket, rose clenched in her teeth, brought down the house. What a perfect idea to have the ladies compare Falstaff’s love letters over lunch at a swanky restaurant. And to see Fenton as a waiter at that same establishment, which once and for all explains why Ford opposes the match with his daughter. Perhaps best of all, Carsen actually stages the fugue by having the characters toast each other in an extended round robin; unlike the Met’s Zefirelli production, this is not just a stand and sing moment. And while we’re on the subject, I prefer Carsen’s version of the work. The Zeffirelli production, which premiered in 1964, was wonderful in its day, but it was time to see what other artists could bring to the table.
The cast is tremendous. Stephanie Blythe, with her impeccable timing, owns Dame Quickly. Last Saturday’s HD telecast was the first time I saw Angela Meade in an operatic role; it was a delightful surprise to see how well she plays comedy. With that skill and that voice, it’s about time the Met gave her a new production instead of casting her at the tail end of revivals. Jennifer Robinson Cano as Meg Page complemented her well, both visually and vocally. The Fenton, Paolo Finale, is quite a find–a lovely tenor di grazia (and incredibly cute to boot). And to cap the performance, Lisette Oropesa, who floated the final ascending phrase of Nanetta’s aria in one breath. Just stunning. When I returned home from the telecast, I popped my Falstaff DVD in to see if Barbara Bonney had managed that feat, but she, exemplary musician that she is, snatched a quick breath before the final four bars (but then again, Bonney had to cope with singing the first part of the aria on the back of an extremely restless horse).
Ambrogio Maestri has now sung the role of Falstaff over 200 times. His size, both horizontally and vertically (he’s 6’5″), and his voice amply (no pun intended) serve to create the character, though I missed that spark of self-awareness and cerebral wit that Paul Plishka and before him, Donald Gramm, brought to the role. Ford has got to be the most ungrateful role in the history of opera, aria or no, but Franco Vassallo turned in a thoughtful performance. However, his appearance did present a problem: Vassallo is probably around 5’10,” and against such a tall Falstaff, he was somewhat lost in the proceedings. A more physically imposing Ford would have been better.
This was the first new production James Levine has conducted since his return to the Met, and the reviews made me a bit apprehensive. However, it seemed things had settled down by the time of the HD telecast, which was certainly vintage Levine. And it goes without saying that the Met orchestra, one of the best in the world, responded marvelously.
If you missed the HD telecast and can’t make it to the Met, don’t despair—“Falstaff” will no doubt show up on PBS’s schedule in the months to come, and I suspect there’s a DVD release that’s forthcoming. It’s a definite keeper.