Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; December 18, 2013—There are some very fine operas that can be thrown together by a batch of professional singers and a good conductor and orchestra; Falstaff isn’t one of them. It has to be assembled with care, musically and textually, each character has to be treated like an individual, and the ensembles have to be put together scrupulously and with each singer putting aside his or her star ego. Quick, witty, and without a wasted note, Falstaff can be a perfect evening at the opera, and most companies don’t dare try to do it haphazardly. The Met’s recent production is its first in 49 years (the last one was by Franco Zeffirelli and had Leonard Bernstein in the pit) and it is brilliant.
Robert Carsen’s updating of the story from Elizabethan England to, well, the second Elizabethan England—the 1950s—comes off without a hitch. Falstaff lives in a gigantic, wood-paneled room in the Garter Inn, but both he and his quarters are sloppy and dirty—the aristocracy is making way, post-World War II, for something else. There’s still a wealthy men’s clubbiness about the place—Falstaff receives Quickly and Ford in the leather-chaired reading room, framed photos of horses on the walls, finely dressed gents reading the daily papers and everything in order—except, of course, that we know that Falstaff is close to penniless. Having Met the Merry Wives of Windsor the scene before (Act 1, Scene 2) while they were dining at an elegant restaurant (Fenton is a waiter, in tux), we know that they are well-off and that the order is changing.
Sir John, dressed in absurd jodhpurs, shows up at Alice’s home and is entertained in the yellow, very modern kitchen; the guitar music that accompanies his entrance comes from a small radio. Sir John and his pretensions, his sense of entitlement, his “old ways” are clearly on the way out—Carsen has kept the wit, broad humor, and charm, and added a bit of wistfulness. Paul Steinberg’s sets are ideal in both old world and nouveau incarnations; finding Sir John on a bale of hay in a stable after his being dumped in the Thames, complete with feeding horse, is both funny and pathetic. The final scene, in the forest, could have been more elaborately park-like, but it is effective as it is.
The strong cast is led by (35-year-old) Nicola Alaimo (nephew of another bass-baritone, Simone Alaimo), a large man with a marvelous, smooth voice of good size that can negotiate the high notes, the falsetto, and the acres of expressive delivery that the role requires. He was stepping into the part played by Ambrogio Maestri, who is even taller and heavier than he and who is said to “own” the role—but he had nothing to be ashamed of. He is a superb actor, light on his heavy feet, with impeccable diction—just the deluded egotist he should be.
His foils are many: Alice Ford, sharp and taking no nonsense, found Anglea Meade in terrific voice, and made you realize that a good director can make her comfortable on stage; Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page, the sort-of “viola” in the mix, showed a strong comic profile as well. And the magnificent Stephanie Blythe, well costumed (as was everyone, by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) to exhibit her power, security, and stature (even in plaid, late in the opera), boomed away uproariously as Mistress Quickly.
Lisette Oropesa’s Nanetta was lovely and looked as good in finery (climbing out from under a restaurant table) as she did in pedal-pushers. Her love interest, Fenton, was the lyrical Paolo Fanale, who could have made more of his third-act aria had he paid heed to Verdi’s dynamics. Franco Vassallo’s Ford was the soul of complex feelings and outrage; the voice is smoothly delivered but can develop a fine snarl for dramatic effect. The small roles are all major in this opera as well, and the Pistola and Bardolfo of Christian van Horn and Keith Jameson were as musical as they were funny; Carlo Bosi’s Dr. Caius impressed as well.
In charge—very much so—was James Levine, leading from a motorized wheelchair. Quick, precise, letting the music relax at times for reflection or subtle plot points, he got spectacular playing from the Met Orchestra and formed the opera’s ensembles into spectacular, precise musical events. This new Falstaff is a jewel in the Met’s crown.