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The 1950s-style kitchen of the Ford residence, in Robert Carsen's staging of Falstaff at the Met
© Beth Bergman 2014
Maestri in the Met's new Falstaff
© Beth Bergman 2014
After five decades of good use, it was high time for the Met to replace Franco Zeffirelli's 1964 Falstaff and present a fresh view of the piece. Robert Carsen's production, which originated at Covent Garden in 2012 and bowed here on December 6, is probably too idiosyncratic to last fifty years into the future. But it offered a lively take on the work, well attuned to its musical dramaturgy.
Carsen shifted the opera to the 1950s, with Windsor as an upscale suburb, basking in the postwar economic boom. Paul Steinberg's set designs hinted at camp without spilling over, and they rendered the town's material comfort in recognizable terms. From Falstaff's unpaid-for, mahogany-lined hotel room to Alice Ford's lemon-chiffon kitchen, the midcentury-modern luxury of the settings made clear that the Fat Knight's courtship of Alice and Meg was governed as much by avarice as by concupiscence.
Not all of Carsen's choices were equally successful. The Herne's Oak scene turned into something of a production number, too slick to evince the Wives' authorship. Even less successful was the decision to shift the setting of Act I, Scene 2, from Ford's garden to an upmarket restaurant. The new locale allowed Carsen to establish the easy (and here, slightly boozy) camaraderie of the Merry Wives in instantly apprehensible terms. But it made a bad structural fit for the scene, which calls for its female and male flanks to take the stage alternatively. The very nature of a restaurant is that people sit in place for long periods; here the successive entrances and exits seemed improbable and unmotivated. And why would the gran borghese Ford entertain the raffish Bardolfo and Pistola at such a respectable venue?
Carsen's work with his performers, however, was above reproach. The singers here cohered into a true ensemble. (The guiding hand of the man in the pit, James Levine, was no doubt another factor.) Their work was ebullient without being forced. And in a piece that often goads its performers toward desperate indications of comedy, these people were actually funny.
Clearly, Ambrogio Maestri, who sang the title role, has a natural gift for comedy. With a voice as huge as his outsized physique, the Italian baritone seems to have been born to play Falstaff; in fact, the evening marked his 200th performance in the role. He commandeered the audience's attention from the instant the curtain rose; moments later, after his stentorian rendering of the knight's paean to his own belly, the crowd broke into spontaneous, delighted applause. His command of the stage allowed him to hold his own against the hay-eating horse that Carsen interpolated into the first scene of Act III. Looking every bit the buffoon in Brigitte Reiffenstuel's witty costume designs — jodhpurs, a soiled onesie — Maestri consistently realized Falstaff's absurd dignity. It was a performance worthy of both Verdi and Shakespeare.
Stephanie Blythe, the evening's Mistress Quickly, was equally commanding — and equally funny. The voice itself had so much impact that it created its own comedy: this Quickly was a woman accustomed to being heard. Blythe once again proved herself to be an expert, dexterous physical comedian as well, her every muscle showing her commitment to the comic spirit of the piece.
Meade and Maestri, Alice and Falstaff at the Met
© Beth Bergman 2014
But while Blythe's Quickly was a known quantity, the success of Angela Meade's Alice Ford was a surprise. The soprano has made her reputation portraying the grand tragic heroines of bel canto opera; I came to the performance wondering about her temperamental fit for the assignment. But Meade entered into the spirit of the proceedings with unflagging zest: her Alice was vivacity itself. And it was revelatory to hear this music sung with such impeccable florid technique. The role, her singing demonstrated, abounds in filigree — such as the skipping staccato line leading to a high C in "Gaie comari di Windsor," here delivered with breathtaking aplomb.
Lisette Oropesa was a sweet, dewy Nannetta, even if her voice didn't have the ideal component of warmth in her summoning of the fairies. Paolo Fanale, in a house debut as Fenton, displayed a compact, firm tenor, opening the opera's final scene with a confident, shapely reading of his serenade. Jennifer Johnson Cano's buoyant Meg was a full co-conspirator in the wives' schemes. Keith Jameson and Christian Van Horn were a properly sleazy Bardolfo and Pistola. Carlo Bosi, in another house debut, delivered the role of Caius with penetrating tone and crackling-crisp diction; his opening "Falstaff!" truly kick-started the opera into action. But the casting of Franco Vassallo was puzzling: he was a pallid Ford, with a voice that seemed too small for the house. He delivered his monologue to little effect, and in the "Se t'agguanto" section of the Act II finale, his interjections were so lacking in incisiveness that they sapped the coiled momentum of the whole ensemble.
It could be, though, that momentum was not foremost among the conductor's goals. Levine has led nearly every Met performance of Falstaff since 1972, and if my ears aren't mistaken, his reading has gotten mellower — and slower — over the years. His control of his forces remains masterly, but his work on this occasion was characterized less by whiplash precision than by its attention to the work's human comedy. Levine seemed to be not so much "conducting" the piece as masterminding a performance in which singers, musicians and production team worked together to reveal the genial humanism of Verdi's late masterpiece.
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