Review: In Metropolitan Opera's Falstaff, An Old Rogue Takes on a Dark Edge

Saturday, December 07, 2013 - 02:00 PM

A scene from Verdi's 'Falstaff' with Ambrogio Maestri (standing center) in the title role. A scene from Verdi's 'Falstaff' with Ambrogio Maestri (standing center) in the title role. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The canary-yellow kitchen is as long as a city block. Hangovers are nursed in a stable while a real horse munches its breakfast. From such disparate evidence, you might not guess that Robert Carsen's new production of Falstaff that opened Friday at the Metropolitan Opera picks up where his more handsome Don Giovanni at La Scala left off. But it does.

Both title characters embody the male Dionysian force that never dies – one of those Carsenian revelations that might not transform your view of the opera, but expands it. Though his Don Giovanni suavely survives at the end while the other characters go to hell, his Falstaff indeed suffers the effects of age, bad dietary habits and financial planning that are distinctive to alcoholics. But while conventional productions might assume Verdi and his librettist Boito created a silly, self-deluded shell of a knight descending to society's dregs, Carsen shows Falstaff in upper-echelon men's clubs and someone to be ridiculed only at your own risk.

Whether or not one agrees with that characterization – and I went with it over the opera's three-hour duration – Carsen went far to solve the central problem that makes the opera more respected than loved. For all its distilled, compact music, Verdi's final opera often seems to be an enshrinement of buffoonery while the soprano/tenor love interest have far-less-than-usual stage time and everybody else has a high old time practicing the un-exalted human pastimes of humiliation and revenge.

With Carsen, 1950s England stands in for the Windsor of Shakespearean antiquity. The dissolute Falstaff wakes up in a reasonably posh hotel room where much partying has gone on. The debts that drive him to seduce married women for enjoyment and profit are high-class ones. And when he dresses for seduction, he wears fox-hunt garb. The merry wives are elaborately coiffed ladies who lunch – so they have time for elaborate entrapment – and lure him into the aforementioned kitchen with cabinet space that rivals Manhattan Mini Storage. Fenton is a waiter – nice touch! And when Falstaff is ejected from a laundry basket and into a puddle, onlookers get drenched from the splash. Nobody gets off easy.

Ambrogio Maestri in the title role of Falstaff (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Early on, some of the opera's ensembles were mildly shaky, though James Levine was in full command, finding many flashes of passion and warmth in the high-traffic score. The magnetic Ambrogio Maestri gave Falstaff one of the most pleasing baritone voices since Sherrill Milnes sang the role, but with an extra roar at significant moments that reveals the muscle behind the character's paunch.

All singers moved and sang fluidly. Has Angela Meade (Alice Ford) ever been so at home onstage? Unfortunately, her vibrato obscured vocal details – which happens as she is settling into a role. Stephanie Blythe (Mistress Quickly) has always been an adept comedienne, and the increasingly arresting depths of her lower range never detracted from that. Playing a nouveau-riche Ford, Franco Vassallo sang with integrity while making his character more ridiculous than usual. As the lovers, Lisette Oropesa and Paolo Fanale were perfectly lovely – the latter being a particularly noteworthy debut.

Now for the reservations: The clear narrative lines that are typical of Carsen broke down a bit in larger crowd scenes. The bigger problem is that, aside from the coup-de-theatre kitchen and and the nighttime scene in the final act, Paul Steinberg's sets are surprisingly plain with a lot of bourgeois wood paneling. Maybe the Las Vegas Rigoletto has raised the bar for middle-class tackiness. But however well Falstaff inhabits stage, it's rather beyond theater. Do exteriors matter so much?

Angela Meade as Alice, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page, and Ambrogio Maestri in the title role (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

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Comments [12]

Philip Martorella from East Greenwich, RI

I am rather disappointed to see the general modifying or modernizing on stage of great operatic works being set in time periods that have not been originally planned for those operas; namely, the sets, staging, locations as well as the characterizations. I find it to be an atrocity that operas are going in this direction currently. To have solely the onstage singing and acting by itself without the concept of combining it with the score and with all due respect to the libretti may prove to be somewhat entertaining even in its departure from the original time period. However, to include the mergence of the musical scores with their libretti concomitantly with such displaced settings, locations and temporal considerations that are vastly different from the original conceptions is an outrage. I would like to add that, notwithstanding the vocal productions which are often at their highest levels, I nevertheless respect the artists' decisions to continue to
perform for their personal fulfillments which may indeed be very enriching, rewarding and lucrative. In support of the performers, I respect their decisions regardless of how I personally feel about such displacements, digressions and, worst yet, departures of the original settings.

Jun. 29 2014 05:36 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Today's MET OPERA broadcast of FALSTAFF was so commendable on the purely audio side that whatever the actual in house viewing of the sets and costumes at the MET is, today's broadcast made clear why FALSTAFF is such a masterpiece. WE SHOULD BE SO LUCKY in future performances of opera. FALSTAFF IS EVERYTHING to enjoy, and one automatically sympathizes with its central figure, whose hedonistic nature to enjoy eating, drinking, womanizing and plotting bractical jokes is part of his "rounded' figure. Many years back I performed in the American premiere of Sir Ralph Vaughn Williams' 'SIR JOHN IN LOVE" which used the original SHAKESEPEARE TEXTS and had the orchestral version of GREENSLEEVES which became the theme music for a popular radio program starting at midnite. As we know the beautiful GREENSLEEVES predated even SHAKESPEARE's birth. That any composer at age 80 would have the attraction of a comic opera to set him to compose so bountiful a score, so rich in characterization and subtexting in the orchestra and be so rich in orchestral colors and so melodic throughout. FALSTAFF is unico. The cast is ideal especially, of course, AMBROGIO MAESTRI as Falstaff and STEPHANIE BLYTHE as Dame Quickly. MAESTRO JAMES LEVINE LOVES THIS WORK AND IT SHOWS!!! Bravo, Maestro Levine, it's our best holiday present to have back your inspiring conducting. I, a Wagnerian heldentenor, will sing the complete Wesendonck Lieder (Wagner), the complete Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Mahler), the tenor solos from Das Lied von der Erde (Mahler) and Waldemar’s music from Gurrelieder (Schoenberg) at the New Life Expo at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City on Saturday March 22nd, 2014. It is to be DVDed by Vlalhalla Records. The accompanying collaborator pianist is ROLF BARNES. I teach voice and coach actors in all the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers in all the Wagner roles at the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute in Boonton, NJ. .

Dec. 14 2013 05:13 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal< va.

The problem with the set being out of proportion comes from he fact that this Falstaff is a co production of six opera companies, most with stages much smaller than the massive Met Stage. This should have been stated along with your negative comments on the set. While I have been critical of present Met top management, their set design and carpentry artizens are some of the best in the world and know how to deal with the massive stage, they had to expand the set to fill the stage, and they did so by adding cabinets and walls.
Since I have not been to the Met since October and will not be returning until February for Prince Igor, Butterfly and Rusalka, I decided to venture into the world of high tech and plastic popcorn and go to see an HD Production of Falstaff this weekend.
I have no idea what this strange experience will be like but I am anxious to see what type of audience turns out for this event. Should be interesting. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 10 2013 08:51 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

Come now. Review this -

http://www.neatorama.com/2013/12/08/Minecraft-And-Opera-Meet-At-Last/#!pqJRB

Dec. 09 2013 04:20 PM
Bobby from Atlanta

We have tickets for December 18th. I can't wait! I love the music, such a change from all of Verdi's tragedies. I wish the Atlanta Opera would stage Falstaff, but economics dictate performing only the top 25 operas.

If a new staging works, I'm for it. 1850's, 1950's doesn't matter; I look forward to hearing Maestro Levine's interpretation. After all, the music, lighting and acting are continuous; the scenery and costumes change only five times. Deal with it folks!

Dec. 09 2013 01:01 PM
AF from Nassau County, Long Island

I agree totally with Peter Malley of NJ & PT of NY!

Dec. 09 2013 04:00 AM
Howard from Florida

The horns also play before "Mondo rubaldo. Reo mondo!", but not before "Mondo reo...Non c`e piu` virtu."

Dec. 08 2013 10:53 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

An "enshrinement of buffoonery"? There's much more than that. Consider Falstaff's "honor" monologue in scene one of Act I. Consider his "world of crime", "thieving world", "there's no virtue left" and "everything's declining" to the accompaniment of clarinets, bassoons and trombones in the first scene of Act III. I pity those seeing a visual travesty like this (as is the current Rigoletto production) for the first time and thinking they have anything at all to do with Verdi, Boito or Shakespeare and Verdi and Piave in "Rigoletto". They're being cheated because of the "update". The audience --- and we listeners --- are NOT being cheated at all by the soloists, chorus and orchestra about whom I have nothing but the highest praise and admiration. I take my hat off to them. The only thing I question in the entirety of the opera was that the quarter notes in the violins, violas and contrabasses were cut short and sounded like eighth notes in the aforementioned "honor" monologue where Falstaff sings "nostro. Io stesso, si`, io, io." Why? That excepted --- which takes about three seconds --- is the only quibble I have about what I heard. I was smiling with delight while reading the full score during the opening night performance and I can't wait to hear it again in the matinee' performance. Bravi to all the soloists, chorus, orchestra, the solo low horn in A flat- player who begins the Windsor Park scene, and especially to Maestro Levine.

Dec. 08 2013 10:38 AM
Peter 'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

The director's fad for pointless "updating" of opera settings (unoriginal and itself a cliche, as noted by another comment here) always fails when you consider how the text of a libretto is betrayed to the point of irrelevance when the appearance of the characters and the settings spelled out in the story purportedly being portrayed is at odds with, or incompatible with, the externals. Consider, here, the Herne the Hunter at midnight scene: isn't that preposterously irrelevant -- the belief system and the old knight's superstition -- in the bourgeois world of the 1950s?

In another recent case in point, the travesty that is the new "Rigoletto", the conflict is perhaps even greater, particularly in the failure of the world of Las Vegas to house anything like the relationship of the Duke of Mantua to just about everyone, but particularly to his jester, because of his absolute power of life and death. Mr. Gelb: give it a rest!

Dec. 08 2013 08:21 AM
Bernie from UWS

I'm not sure what Mr. Lane's issue is with this production but I saw it on Friday and thought it was quite compelling. Transporting the setting to 1950's England was a deft touch and brought out new shades of meaning in Verdi's work. I agree with Stearns, the sets aren't always that compelling but they served their purpose and didn't overshadow the music-making. Kudos to the Met for getting this one right.

Dec. 08 2013 07:59 AM
PT from NY NY

I have tickets for this opera in a few weeks, but am disappointed that once again the Met has clumsily modernized an opera that worked so well in the century the composer, librettist, and original author (i.e., Shakespeare) intended. This time shift is no longer an "original" idea. It has become the opposite: boring, obvious, frequently ludicrous, and at best a betrayal of the creators. I await the day when the Met returns to its gorgeous classical and faithful productions.

Dec. 07 2013 07:06 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Why not name the opera FAILEDSTAFF, since so many stage directors and set and costume designers consider themselves beyond reproach if they disdain to recognize the integral verity of the original librettist and composer and seek for themselves notoriety and sensationalism to garner fame and financial rewards. SHAME SHAME on the consistently reckless barbarians who reek havoc and discourage audience attendance by reaching down to the lowest common denominator, who insedently cannot afford the outrageous costs of monstrous sets and singer agents demands for higher salaries for less than exciting performers. What if we went to Paris' LOUVRE ART MUSEUM and saw a substitution for the LEONARDO DA VINCI MONA LISA, an updated modern version!!! I am a romantischer Wagnerian heldentenor. On St. Valentine's Day, Friday February 14, 2014, my TEN DVD SET on the VALHALLA RECORDS label of "The 300 Greatest Love Songs of Broadway Musicals, Movies and the Grammys" recorded in ten live concerts will be obtainable. My website is www.WagnerOpera.com, where one may download, free, at RECORDED SELECTIONS 37 out of the nearly 100 selections that I have sung in 4 three-hour-long solo concerts in CARNEGIE HALL'S ISAAC STERN AUDITORIUM.

Dec. 07 2013 06:50 PM

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