BWW Reviews: Verdi's 'Big Belly' Rumbles with Laughter in Met's New FALSTAFF
"Dying is easy; comedy is hard" says the old show business quip. If anything, opera comedy is even harder. Why is it so difficult? Because it offers so many opportunities to do a disservice to the composer, the artists and the art form in one fell swoop. However, Robert Carsen's antic new production of Verdi's FALSTAFF at the Met, vividly conducted by Music Director James Levine, makes it look easy.
A fitting end to Verdi's bicentenary
Particularly as the end of the Verdi bicentenary year approaches, it's easy to forget how critical the librettos are to the success of his works (though IL TROVATORE persists with such a silly one). Arrigo Boito, who did such magnificent work on OTELLO, trumped it with his book for FALSTAFF, drawing on minor Shakespeare ("The Merry Wives of Windsor") for most of it, with bits of the Henry plays to fill out the central character. For Verdi, it was a fitting end to a career that remains an essential part of opera life, but he couldn't have done it without his collaborator, who knew how to draw characters and tell a story.
Certainly, this time around, FALSTAFF seemed lighter than a feather and so enjoyable that you almost forget about how complex and groundbreaking the music is. And, make no mistake, it is. From the first chords of the opening scene--no overture to lead your way to what lies ahead--the listener is caught up in the life of the merry life of Windsor. The work of Levine and the Met orchestra was critical in keeping all the moving parts of the opera in motion. The opera will certainly never be as popular as many other Verdi works--it simply doesn't have the show-stopping ingredients that fill houses--but when it's done right, it's a wonder.
A director who likes opera
It's great to see an opera in the hands of a director who actually seems to like opera. Carson (whose production of EUGENE ONEGIN, predating the Met's current one, I much admired) has updated the story from the early 15th century to the 1950s to mostly delightful effect. Maybe Carsen goes too far in the kitchen scene, where Ford's minions tear apart the cupboards and closets looking for Falstaff, which seemed more out of Rossini than Verdi. And perhaps the title character offers a little less pathos than in other productions. But I appreciated the opera in a way I never have before, and I was grateful for it.
The scenic design by Paul Steinberg, abetted by the lighting of Peter Van Praet and director Carsen, and witty costumes of Brigitte Reiffenstuel, was smashing. It was particularly effective in the scene in the Fords' kitchen, which was set in a time when Harvest Yellow and Avocado Green appliances were the hallmark of middle class homes, but I liked the scenes in Falstaff's cluttered room at the Garter Inn and, later, at the Inn's restaurant.
A stellar Falstaff
Any kudos start with the stellar performance by Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri in the title role (seen December 27), who, at 43, has racked up more than 200 performances as "Big Belly" (Verdi's and Boito's code name for the developing opera). He has enormous stage presence--at 6 foot 5 inches and with the physical heft to go with his prodigious vocal resources.
At the same time, he is light on his feet, as well as being a pleasure to hear and an exuberant colleague. (It would be interesting to see what he does with Scarpia, another current role in his repertoire.) He manages to keep his dignity even when thrown in a laundry basket or running around in his long-johns. Maestri walked away with nearly every scene--except when he's drying off in the stable after being thrown in the river, and he is mightily upstaged by a live horse chomping away at his feed as if it's the only thing in the world.
A wonderful female contingent
It was a very good night in all quarters of the production. There was wonderful singing and acting from the three Americans who led the female contingent: Soprano Angela Meade, who is often rather stoic in dramatic roles, was a natural comedian and sang with flair as Alice Ford and mezzo Stephanie Blythe romped through the role of Mistress Quickly, plumbing the depths of her cavernous voice to great comic effect. Soprano Lisette Oropesa, who seemed particularly sylph-like next to these large women, showed a gorgeous, full-bodied voice as Nannetta that I could have listened to all night.
As the ingénue-juvenile of the piece, Oropesa was paired with a young Italian tenor, Paolo Fanale, making his house debut in a very appealing performance as Fenton. The cast was rounded out by well-conceived portrayals by mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page, baritone Franco Vassallo as Ford and tenor Carlo Bosi as Dr. Caius, a stuffed shirt that Ford has matched up with his daughter. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Pistola and tenor Keith Jameson as Bardolfo were frisky cohorts of Falstaff.
"The play's the thing"?
While Shakespeare wrote that "the play's the thing," in the opera house, it is the singing and the music that count the most (including the work of the director and conductor). I heard the Saturday afternoon broadcast of FALSTAFF on WQXR before attending the performance at the Met and found the vocal performances alone carried it off, without surtitles, without the colorful visuals. Perhaps a different Shakespeare quote (slightly modified) is more fitting to describe FALSTAFF and its great composer: "If music be the food of life, play on."
FALSTAFF is a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera; the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Teatro alla Scala, Milan; the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto; and De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam.
Photo: Mezzo Stephanie Blythe as Mistress Quickly and baritone Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera