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He is big

Falstaff, Verdi’s final opera, is exuberantly inventive, bubbling and roiling with ideas the 79-year-old composer was too impatient to develop. It’s a work bursting with miraculously youthful vigor, which the newly invigorated James Levine brought to the Metropolitan Opera on December 6. Levine rightfully reveres Falstaff, and his light, deft touch and detailed musical ear were matched in Robert Carsen’s witty, visually stunning production, where Shakespeare’s Merry Wives live in 1950’s Windsor, leaving their bright kitchens to lunch at smart restaurants.  

Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s eye-catching costumes combine bright red equestrian habits with the glamorous housewife feel of “I Love Lucy.” Paul Steinberg’s sets, beautifully lit by Carsen and Peter Van Praet, feature oak paneling with hunting motifs, a knowing nod to the play’s final prank, where Falstaff is instructed to appear wearing stag horns under Herne’s oak tree. In that magnificent, magical scene in Windsor Forest, signaled by mysterious horns, the back wall opens to reveal a starry black sky in a dreamlike space, with huge shadows both mysterious and comic.

Towering over the rest of the cast, Ambrogio Maestri’s Falstaff is no buffoon, no dirty lowlife, but the lazy moocher of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, which librettist Boito scoured for backstory. An entitled aristocrat disinterested in honor while rigorously living by his own code, even though it involves seduction and embezzlement, in the end Falstaff is content to have served as the butt of everyone’s jokes, declaring that it’s his own spirit of inventiveness and play that fuels everyone around him. With his handsome voice and superb diction, Maestri is a masterful singing actor with a delightfully commanding presence, whether prancing through “Va, vecchio John” as a music-hall number or fleetly dispatching Falstaff’s nostalgic “Quand’ero paggio” while carving a turkey.

In fact it’s Master Ford, a sleazy and rigid misogynist attempting to marry off his only daughter carelessly, who is the more despicable character. Franco Vassallo’s fine-textured baritone sounded constricted and small-scale, especially in Ford’s great jealousy monologue “E sogno…o verità,” but in disguise as “Fontana,” played here as a rich Texan in a gold suit, Vassallo was amusing.

Realizing they’ve received identical love letters from Sir John, Alice Ford and Meg Page plan the prank that results in Falstaff’s dumping in a muddy ditch after hiding in a laundry basket. As Alice Ford, Angela Meade proved herself a fine comedian, her sturdy, dark-hued soprano shaping Verdi’s lines with precision and luxuriant beauty, while Jennifer Johnson Cano brought savvy and suave musicality to the role of Meg.

As Mistress Quickly, Stephanie Blythe was in superb voice, playing the sidekick and co-conspirator with hilariously offhand aplomb and greeting Falstaff with roaring “Reverenzas” as she bursts into his men’s club entirely unaware of the offended gentlemen who eventually depart in a huff. Facing each other in overstuffed armchairs, Blythe and Maestri exuded a confidence that made one wish for more projects to team up these two comic masters.

Into the mix come young Nannetta Ford and her boyfriend Fenton, stealing kisses in micro-duets purposefully fashioned by Boito and Verdi to avoid a large-scale love scene. Paolo Fanale’s Fenton sounded one size too small for the Met, but Lisette Oropesa played Nannetta as an adorable young teenybopper, comfortable at home in pedal pushers, while poised and pert in public, and spinning sustained high notes with gossamer beauty.

In Met debuts, Carlo Bosi delivered a well-projected Dr. Caius and Christian Van Horn a resonant, lanky Pistola. As Bardolfo, Keith Jameson looked hilariously tiny next to the commanding Maestri, and showed plenty of comic appeal.

Allowing the orchestra to play out without covering the singers, while savoring then letting go of each detail in Verdi’s scurrying, lyrical, kaleidoscopic score, Levine brings a reassuring confidence that’s been in short supply this fall at the Met. Falstaff’s final fugue paints the world as a joke, everyone “gabbati” or duped, and Levine led the moment less boisterously than usual, with more subtlety and thought, while Carsen’s cast pointed to the audience and to each other knowingly.

The opening night performance was dedicated to the beloved American soprano-turned-mezzo Regina Resnik (1922-2013), who had sung both Alice Ford and Mistress Quickly during her long association with the Met.

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

13 comments

  • Porgy Amor says:

    Paul Steinberg’s sets, beautifully lit by Carsen and Peter Van Praet

    Ah, yes. A dream team. I have never seen a Carsen production that was not beautifully lit, and I have seen a double-digit number now. Besides its considerable, almost tactile beauty, the lighting enhances the drama, giving more expression and dimension to the performances. In the video of the Fenice Traviata, also Carsen/PvP, I found it remarkable how Patrizia Ciofi could be made in some moments to look harsh and angular, at others girlish, at others hauntingly beautiful — and always with the music, the words. This is a level of artistry that speaks not only of vision and expertise but of painstaking care, of picking up where many others leave off. I was reminded of Muti’s touching reminiscence of working with Giorgio Strehler on a Don Giovanni, watching Strehler make minute adjustments in the lighting for hours, not even lighting the performers yet but only the scenery: “And I felt at midnight like a poor ignorant man — and I was ashamed of my ignorance. Because what I thought was magic at eight o’clock was incredibly beautiful at midnight. It was beyond words.”

    Thank you, Lee B. Ahmo, for the review of this production of my favorite opera, which will be the Met’s Christmas present to me.

    • Silver says:

      If you truly love this opera, smile at the music, then save yourself the money and stay home. The music has charm, elegance. This rendition is crass, crude, contrary to the music. There are many ways to update a work. Why not set this story a la Downton Abbey? Why have a horse munching hay while a baritone is singing something important?! Nanetta and Fenton are addicted to hiding under tables. Should Bardolfo and Pistola get into bed with Falstaff?! Should Falstaff come courting in a hideous kitchen a la Long Island?!; I could go on and on. This is not a presentation to be proud of. It is an insult to Verdi, to the audience, to any newcomers who might think this is the essence of opera. It is deplorable! And it was a musical shambles at the premier! When the curtain came down there was silence.

  • operaassport says:

    That’s some major tonnage in that photo :)

    Did anyone notice that Blythe and Futral will sing Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in a new opera in St. Louis next summer. That should be a trip!

  • Camille says:

    It’s very respectful, and only proper, that this is dedicated to Regina Resnik. That is very nice.

    Stephanie Blythe and Ambrogio Maestri are an unbeatable pair in this work. Looking forward to this HD! Maybe I should actually go to the theatre for this one. Tickets will be expensive, though. Wonder what it was that Levine did which was so egregious even TT picked up on it.

    Thanks Lee B. Ahmo. Long time no see.

    • Lee B. Ahmo says:

      The ladies triple / gents duple ensemble wasn’t as precise as it will surely be in later performances. Not s

      • Lee B. Ahmo says:

        (Fingers too Falstaffian for iPhone)
        Moments like the “no” responses in “Onore” were fabulously precise and fun.

    • Lee B. Ahmo says:

      The ladies triple / gents duple ensemble wasn’t as precise as it will surely be in later performances. Not something *I* am going to quibble about. TT is such a stickler! Lol.

      M

  • mandryka says:

    I was rather surprised to se the words “ideas [Verdi was] too impatient to develop.” He seems to have missed the point entirely.

  • mandryka says:

    Falstaff: 12/9, last night

    A performance of one of the greatest operas, quite stunning in every respect.

    Hardly know where to begin. Maestri, Blythe and Meade were all sheer perfection. Vocally magnificent, and they all hit all the right comedy points without being silly or overbearing. Meade, who has often been called stiff or staid, really loosened up in comedy. Wonderful movement and facial expressions. A whole new side of her. And she looked great, luscious and funny in her yellow satin dress.

    Orchestra and Levine simply beyond the beyond. A very complicated and difficult score performed with all the freshness, excitement and beauty it deserves. Made my head spin, it was so beautiful at times.

    A disturbing note: the theater was filled with cameras, blinking video monitors, and the constant whirring of boom cameras, periscope cameras and chatty technicians. A complete disgrace. The situation has gotten much worse this year. It is now utterly urgent to avoid almost all performances anywhere near a so-called “HD” movie house broadcast. I am quite surprised that patrons put up with it. These “HD” performances, as well as their rehearsals and run-throughs, should simply be given away for free to anyone who wishes to be present. To charge full price for such things is really unconscionable.