Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page, Ambrogio Maestri in the title role, and Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Quickly in Verdi's "Falstaff."
(Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Despite being arguably Verdi's finest work, "Falstaff" has not been a major fixture at the Metropolitan Opera. Prior to Friday night's new production premiere, the work had only received 175 performances at the famed house since 1895 when the work was premiered at the Met. Moreover, the last time the opera company had performed the work was in 2005. "Falstaff" is becoming increasingly popular around the world and the hope is that after Friday night's performance and the crowd's reception, the Met will stage it more consistently.
The new production is by superstar director Robert Carsen. Carsen directed a hugely popular Eugene Onegin at the Met for his 1997 debut and has directed opera productions at all the great houses around the world. His Falstaff is a tremendous feat mainly because he manages to combine the styles of modern and classic operatic tradition in an energetic and cohesive manner. The first scene takes place in a lavish hotel room with what looks like oak walls, a visual motif throughout the entire production. In the center of the stage is a massive bed featuring the title character. Around him are a number of small tables containing trays that have clearly been ravished. There is some furniture on the extremes of the stage to add detail to the scenery without creating a distraction. This scene introduces Falstaff in his "omnipotence." He toys with an angry Dr. Caius before bashing his own minions Bardolfo and Pistola. Carsen manages to keep the interest high by throwing out a number of hilarious twists and turns throughout. In one moment, Falstaff receives the bill for his feast; the receipt extends to the floor. Later on, he reaches under his mattress and pulls out a gun to threaten Bardolfo and Pistola with. The two "idiots" run about looking for a place to hide and at one point consider Falstaff's closet.
The second act takes place in a restaurant. There are three tables on each side of the stage with one in the center. The merry wives have their conversations and meal on a table that is downstage on stage right while the men assemble at the opposite side. Even though the overall scenery is rather large, Carsen's choice to concentrate the action onto specific areas of the stage manages to draw the audience in and maintain the momentum of Verdi and Boito's comedy. In the final ensemble, he decides to take full advantage of both tables and also allows Fenton to stand atop the center table; those familiar with the music will recognize this a rather fitting staging considering Fenton's central melody serving as the "glue" that sustains the differing rhythmic meters in the male and women. The staging of the young lovers is quite unique in that it takes a step away from the seeming "naturalism" of other scenes in order to emphasize the magic of first love. In this particular case, Fenton is a waiter and it seems that he and Nannetta are actually getting to know each other for the first time. While the two lovers converse, time stops and all the other characters around them freeze. Throughout the opera, the pair will seek out new places to hide from the world around them and engage in their romance. In this particular scene, they hide underneath the table on the stage left. When the men come back to sit there, the two lovers slowly crawl out from under the table, a moment that elicited nervous laughter from the audience.
The first scene of Act 2 is set back in a reading lounge of the hotel with a ton of pictures of horses scattered about; this will take on new meaning in the third act and seems to follow from the "galloping" music and text that ends the first scene of the opera. Falstaff sits around, as you might have guessed, eating, while a bunch of other men around him are reading. As the scene progresses, these men will, out of frustration, exit one by one. This little story detail in itself is quite entertaining to behold as the viewer anticipates what action from the main characters will set off these supporting characters. Ever hear of the famous "there are no small roles?" This is a perfect example of that. The scene features some interesting flirting between Mistress Quickly and Falstaff and a hilarious sequence between the two baritones. The ending of the scene, in which Falstaff and Ford do the usual "after you" routine on their way out the door, ends comically when they opt to leave together. The two men are unable to fit through the doorway which is blocked on the flanks by waiters; more waiters join to push them out the door and wind up falling all over each other.
The second scene of Act 2 drew instantaneous applause for its elaborate modern portrayal of a kitchen. It is a massive set that while rigid in its design, retains a colorfulness that makes it attractive and unique. This scene might be Carsen finest moment in the entire work as the attention to detail is never superseded. Nannetta enters angrily and runs to the fridge to indulge on some ice cream. Alice turns on a radio as a substitute for the mandolin that she is supposed to play in the libretto; Falstaff sings a few verses to accompany the music before turning off the radio. At the end of his courtship of Alice, he takes out a turkey/chicken from the oven and starts splitting it between the two; he naturally serves himself a grotesque portion. Pandemonium ensues the moment Ford enters the scene alongside a seemingly endless amount of henchman (words can truly not describe this particular effect has on the viewer). The chaos slowly builds until Ford orders everyone to empty the cabinets and closets. The ensuing visual eruption has the side effect of being extremely noisy and somewhat hindering the music; fortunately its duration is brief and effective. The final moments of the scene in which Falstaff is "thrown" out the window are so believably executed that suspension of disbelief is almost unnecessary in the context.
The first two acts play together with minimal breaks in between scenes. The final act, after a lengthy intermission, is actually played without a single break. The scenery for this scene is a barn in a triangular form with one of the corners in the center of the stage; Falstaff sleeps here under a pile of hay. On stage right is a horse; he is having what looks like a tasty meal. For those unfamiliar with the Falstaff text, the characters constantly refer to one another as different kinds of animals when they are looking to insult each other. Falstaff calls Ford "un bue (an ox)" while Ford refers to Falstaff at the end of Act 2 as "un cignale (a pig);" in the opera's final act, Falstaff refers to Bardolfo as a number of animals including a salamander, a herring and a lizard among others. Carsen's choice to place Falstaff in a barn alongside a horse during Falstaff's monologue in which he condemns the world around him, only adds to the character's low point and his feeling of insignificance and immortality. Falstaff makes a massive point about his "kingdom" in the opening act, and it is not only extremely funny, but also rather touchy and slightly heart-breaking to see what his "kingdom" looks like at this point in the work. Carsen could have played this scene as pure comedy, but his choice here adds dimension to his conception and remains true to the Shakespearean origins of the work. The remainder of this scene is actually rather tepid for its remainder as the main line of action focuses on Nannetta and Fenton trying to find a corner for themselves; the other characters are actually rather fixed in their positions. Nothing to complain about, considering the overall scheming nature of the scene, but certainly more sober than what has come before.
The walls open up to create a trapezoidal form onstage; the background features the night sky in its entire splendor. The newfound space is Carsen's version of Windsor Park and while it lacks the visual potency of the other sets, it allows for some strong staging decisions. All the characters enter from upstage, and their shadows are clearly delineated along the angled stage walls. As they move downstage, the shadows grow in size, adding eeriness to the proceedings; this play of the shadows is particularly effective when Falstaff enters the stage with his massive antlers. The fearful knight looks to both sides and walks slowly downstage, all the while staring at his shadow with trepidation. The scene's big coup de theatre is when mist starts to dominate the stage. Falstaff hears the "fairy queen's" voice offstage and walks upstage. Suddenly he sees something and starts walking backward downstage. Slowly, the stage becomes engulfed by mist, a cinematic feat if there ever was one. The "fairy queen" and the other "spirits" arrive on moving tables that are eventually lined up to form one massive table. Once Falstaff is "discovered" he is placed on the table where he rolls about as the "spirits" prepare to eat him. The eating motif, which as you may have noticed dominates the work, is of particular hilarity here; Verdi's "Ruzzola" and "Spizzica" rhythms are matched by the up and down movement of utensils by the entire chorus, almost as if they were anxiously waiting to eat up Falstaff and his massive belly. Once the deceit is unveiled, a massive wall comes down on the scene and the characters are seemingly back in the hotel from the start of the production; the bookending here is duly noted, but questions of story logistics come into play here. Where are they exactly and how did they get here? Not a major problem when suspension of disbelief is applied, but still a bit uneven in comparison with everything that has come before. Carsen is known for his trademark motif of theater-within-theater for most of his productions. He manages to ignore it for most of the work but manages to get it in during the final choral fugue "Tutto nel mondo e burla (All the world's a joke)." The entire cast comes to the footlights of the stage and the lights in the theater slowly turn on until the audience becomes part of the spectacle; the singers' decision to point at the audience fully breaks the fourth wall for a brief moment before the singers find their places around the massive table for one last feast.
Carsen teamed up with debutant Peter Van Praet for the lighting and creates some marveleffects; the lighting cues are scarce throughout the opening two acts but are extremely effective when they appear. The lights dim when Falstaff starts his "L'Onore" monologue in the first scene, adding some darkness to the moment and also emphasizing (or even exaggerating?) Falstaff's "anger." As noted, the Fenton-Nannetta love scenes freeze time around them; for this Carsen and Van Prael employ whimsical dark blue/purple lightning that suggests a romantic night; this palette actually dominates the mysterious act three scenes, reinforcing the magical element of Fenton and Nannetta's love. Falstaff's famous "Va, vecchio John" also features one of those "frozen in time" moments as the entire scenery goes red and Falstaff dances about the stage. Ford's "aria" in the final moments of this scene are also set against dark lighting, giving the scene a seriousness that is absent throughout the rest of the performance.
Brigitte Reiffensteul's costumes are also worth noting. They vary in their attention to period, but this diversity adds to the overall feel of timelessness that the production creates.
So finally, we get to the cast which is quite fantastic throughout the evening. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, Falstaff is growing in popularity around the world. One of the reasons is that the work is standing the test of time. The second reason is Ambrogio Maestri. If you look at the cast list for most Falstaff performances around the world, there is a high probability that Maestri is on the bill as Falstaff as he is arguably the biggest proponent of the role at the moment. On Friday, he proved why this is the case. From the opening moment, Maestri gave a compelling committed portrayal of the misguidedly arrogant knight. Maestri's tall height makes him fit perfectly with the larger-than-life stature of Falstaff's character. His voice, which exploded with volume at several points in the performance, matched this quality as well. In the first act, Verdi gives Falstaff grandiose music to emphasize his "Questo e il mio regno! Lo ingrandiro! (This is my kingdom and I will make it grow)." The word "regno" is written on a high F and it was at this moment that Maestri unleashed the full power of his voice, truly asserting his tremendous self-confidence and larger-than-life quality. The audience immediately erupted into applause, an unusual occurrence in a work like Falstaff that is through-written without any actual pauses. The "L'onore" monologue was quite aggressive in its delivery, the "ladri" sustained with a dark, menacing tone. However, the tone lightened as the aria progressed and Maestri was at his most brilliant as he nonchalantly delivered each of "No" responses to his rhetorical questions on the nature of honor.
In the first scene of Act 2, Maestri danced about and swiveled his cane in a phallic motion as he considered his opportunity to sexually conquer Alice and Meg. The voice here was rather light and delicate, adding a sexual nuance that reinforced the energetic movements with the cane. When he finally arrives to satisfy his urges for Alice, Maestri delivered a more aggressive Falstaff. He took her in his arms at one point and thrust her onto the counter savagely, his voice at its most full and potent. As noted, the third act featured the character in his most base state. The opening monologue "Mondo ladro" featured a more nuanced performance from Maestri, his voice delicate and fragile like the character's state of mind. The minor key reprise of "Va, vecchio John" had a sour approach to it, the notes delivered with a rugged tone. The ensuing phrase "Alor comparira la verra Virilita dal mondo (All Manliness and virility will leave the world)" was delivered with ardent longing that had a romantic quality that added a tragic dimension to the character. In the final scene, the confidence of the character was completely gone. Maestri's Falstaff tiptoed about the forest while wearing the ridiculous antlers; the aforementioned coup de theatre with the mist is not accomplished if Maestri's timing and fright is not executed with the perfection it was. During the "torture" scene, Maestri's Falstaff rolled about on his stomach from one end of the long table to the next; it is easy to take for granted how hard this could be for a singer and this alone emphasized Maestri's commitment to the role and performance at large. His final crowning moment of comedy came when he slapped Bardolfo around in perfect synchronization with Verdi's music.
In the role of Alice Ford was Angela Meade in arguably her strongest performance at the Met to date. The soprano made a terrific debut as Elvira in "Ernani" a few seasons ago and was rightfully venerated by Met audiences for a recent turn in the demanding role of Bellini's "Norma." While Meade's lyrical qualities have never been doubted, she had never quite delivered such a complete performance as she does here. From the get-go, her subtle but physical gestures make it clear that she is a woman of high society. During the entirety of Act 1, she is the center of attention with her robust and imposing presence; this is clearly the leader of the group. During Act 2, she flirts with Falstaff, but still manages to maintain an aura of dignity while he attempts to conquer her. Moments before she prepares for the meeting, Meade moves around calmly as the other woman race out chaotically. She suavely walks over to the radio and turns it on in perfect coordination with the music; these small but effective gestures emphasized just how composed and confident Alice is. In the second scene of Act 3, Meade elicited the greatest fits of laughter as she skipped in rhythm to the syncopated staccato in the strings; her appearance hinted at the mischief to come. Meade's voice, as usual, was in top form. She maintained a rather delicate quality in the singing during the early scenes, emphasizing Alice's refinement. During the phrase "Promoassa al grado" which ascends to a G-natural, Meade did a beautiful diminuendo the apex of the phrase that had an ethereal, dream-like quality; Alice claims that she may have a chance to improve her rank in this particular moment and Meade's phrasing suggests Alice attaching a "romantic" quality to this idea. During the reading of Falstaff's letter, Verdi gives the soprano a gorgeously (and sarcastic) phrase on the text "e il viso tuo su me risplendera come una stella sull'immensita (Your face will shine upon me like a star over the bottomless deep)." The score asks for a caricature delivery of the phrase, but Meade's choice to deliver it with all of her vocal resources and lyricism added the necessary exaggeration that Verdi calls for. Meade's other major highlight came in the first scene in Act 3 in which she narrates the mystery of Windsor Forest; Meade utilized the darkest hues in her voice to not only add mystery to the narration but to give authority to her delivery; moments later she jumped back into a lighter voice as she revealed that the whole story is a big fairy tale.
Franco Vassallo was a terrific counterpoint as Ford. Seriousness permeated his stoic movements from his first entrance in Act 1 and his rigid phrasing throughout this scene only emphasized Ford as the polar opposite of Falstaff. This introduction to the character made his arrival in Act 2 all the more amusing. Decked out with long hair, sunglasses, boots and other interesting attire, his alter-ego Fontana could not be more different from the actual character of Ford. Vassallo moved about more freely throughout this act, even throwing his feet on the furniture and kneeling over Falstaff to reveal his secret. The big moment in the scene of course comes in the final "monologue" of the act in which Ford comments on his jealousy. As he started the monologue with the famous "E sogno? O realta?" his voice remained quiet, tame; almost as if Ford were trying to compose himself and rationalize the situation. However, as he delivered the "Due rami enormi crescon sulla mia testa (Two enormous horns sprouting on my head)," he made a tremendous crescendo along with the orchestra that was punctuated with a furious attack on the word "testa." There was an explosive quality in the singing as he pushed his voice to brink throughout the remainder of the aria, his voice bursting over the potent orchestral accompaniment in a moment fitting of Verdi's jealous moor. At the end of the aria, Ford gets a phrase that is somewhat reminiscent of Otello's "Spento e quel sol, quel sorriso" during his "Dio mi Potevi;" Ford's text reads "Laudata sempre sia nel fondo del mio cor la gelosia (Praised be forever the jealousy in my heart)." Vassallo's voice was at its fullest and most heroic as he ascended this phrase to its climactic G natural. Throughout the remainder of the performance, Vassallo retained the serious nature of Ford, and added a plethora of comic moments between him and Falstaff in the work's final climax.
Stephanie Blythe is a Met opera favorite and received applause after her big scene with Falstaff in Act 2. Her Quickly had a similar confidence to that of Meade's Alice, but her character seemed to be more willing to indulge in flirtation with Falstaff than her counterpart's. During the Act 2 meeting with the massive knight, she sat beside him and actually spoon-fed him like a baby; the moment had a comic tenderness to it, but also emphasized Quickly's control in the situation. Quickly gets some of the most memorable moments of Verdi's "parola scenica" and Blythe relished every single opportunity that she got to deliver "Reverenza" and "Povera Donna," each time growing greater and greater in its sarcasm.
Of the four women in the work, Meg is often the most overlooked. She is always grouped with the other four women in every scene she is a part of and gets no major musical solo moments like Nannetta's song in Act 3 or Alice's narration in the same act. Jennifer Johnson Cano made sure that she was not overlooked on Friday night as she delivered a rather nuanced performance as Meg. She frolicked about as the women schemed in Act 3 and during the final wedding, earning furious laughter from the spectators. Her mezzo-soprano's elegance radiated throughout the theater during her select moments to shine.
As Nannetta, Lisette Oropesa was terrific. Oropesa managed to capture the awkwardness of teenage angst during the opening of Act 1, scene 2 with her fretting and pleading looks toward the other women; it was clear that she wanted to fit in but didn't. Once Fenton came into the picture, the character slowly matured physically, the awkward movements gave way to more gracefully ones. There was some childish flirtation by a cart of food, a rather bratty walk to the refrigerator to eat ice cream, and even some juvenile kissing scenes in the barn, but by the end of Act 3, it was clear that this Nannetta was a grown woman. As she stood atop the table as the fairy queen she rotated about effortlessly and elegantly. Oropesa's sweet soprano only added to the strength of the characterization. Verdi does a wonderful job of developing Fenton and Nannetta's courtship musically. There early exchanges are short and hesitant phrases that slowly evolve into fully-blown lyrical gestures and phrases that grow in intensity as the work develops. Oropesa's vocal line during the early exchanges with Fenton was rather subdued, hinting at the timidity of the character. By the end of their scene in the first act, she delivered an ethereal sustained high A-flat that was sung almost pianissimo and emphasized the purity of Nannetta's love for Fenton. She sang with utmost delicacy throughout the "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio," her voice reaching a breathtaking climax on a sustained high-A on the phrase "Carmi e malie" that included the most subtle of swells in the middle of the note. The final phrase of the Nannetta's song climaxes on an ascending scale to another high-A that Oropesa delivered sublimely, another subtle crescendo creeping in at the end of the note.
Paolo Fanale delivered an elegant Fenton in his Met debut. His characterization had an innocence that matched Oropesa's and added to the allure of their relationship. His voice is light but also combines some darker hues that give him a wide ranging palette in the lyrical role. While he seemed a bit overpowered at times during the final ensemble in Act one, he sang the engrossing melody with elegant phrasing that pulled the listener in. From the very first note, his sonnet "Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola" was delivered with a propulsive ardent energy; the tempo was swift and unlike many deliveries of this aria which favor plenty of breaks between phrases, Fanale maintained strict rhythmic observation of Verdi's rests. This added a virile and energetic quality to the interpretation that seemed to gain in its striving and longing as it developed; Nannetta's interruption felt all the more abrupt and made the subsequent passionate embrace of the two lovers all the more climactic.
Carlo Bosi also made a successful debut as the irritable Dr. Caius. Caius is the one character that everyone loves to poke fun at and Bosi embraced this role from the get-go. One of his most memorable moments came in Act 3, scene 1. He pursued Nannetta around the stage in a creepy stalker-like manner. While it certainly came off as quite humorous, it also expressed the timid nature of the character.
Christian Van Horn and Keith Jameson were perfectly paired as Bardolfo and Pistola. Van Horn, in his debut, is tall in stature while Jameson is noticeably shorter than him. It was rather entertaining to watch these two characters confront the massive Falstaff of Maestri at the end of the opening scene. Maestri's Falstaff was particularly abusive with Jameson's Bardolfo and grabbed him by the nose in a few instances; after bullying the smaller figure, Falstaff went over and knocked around the taller but significantly slimmer Pistola. The two were very versatile and had terrific chemistry together, especially in scenes where they had to sing and work together in synchronization. One particularly effective moment featured them kneeling down to beg forgiveness from Falstaff at the start of Act 2.
The chorus deserves mention from a truly strong evening through and through. The third act climax was particularly striking in the unison movements from the chorus and soloists alike to truly create the effect of spirits "torturing" Falstaff.
James Levine made his return to the Met earlier this year in Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" and received tremendous applause upon his first appearance on Friday. He delivered a rather spirited performance of the work from the opening orchestral explosion. Levine seemed unrelenting in his attempts to propel the action forward at every moment as duly noted in Fanale's interpretation of Fenton's aria. The galloping strings at the end of the first scene seemed to race ever quicker as the music approached its final climax. The famous trill crescendo in the first scene of act three was a moment of true music divinity, the music reaching and reaching ever higher until it burst into the next scene. Verdi's score for a versatile use of the French horn as the instrument can be a rather comic in its connotations while also remaining a significant presence. The music that opens act three suggests the river of the Thames; Verdi employs a Rossini crescendo that climaxes with the arrival of the horns. The delivery here added a noticeably comic touch to the music. The horns were at their best all night and Levine made sure to give them every opportunity to shine. The opening prelude of Act 3 was one particular moment of absolute beauty from the horns; the slow and quasi-hesitant triples that open the scene adding to the mystery of the evening.
Yes, this is an enormous review and fittingly so considering the work's title character and Carsen's emphasis on indulgence throughout his production. The production is stellar in its attention to detail and in Carsen's ability to fill every single moment with something. Not even the minor gripes in the final act are enough to dissuade one from believing that this is a masterpiece of stage direction. The cast is fascinating in every conceivable way while James Levine's expert hand only adds to the magic of the evening. This "Falstaff" is one of the finest productions of general manager Peter Gelb's tenure and the perfect way to end the 2013 bicentennial celebration of Verdi's immortal genius.