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)