NY Met’s ‘Falstaff’ falters slightly

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FALSTAFF
STAGE DIRECTOR: Robert Carsen
CONDUCTOR: James Levine
CAST: Ambrogio Maestri, Angela Meade, Stephanie Blythe, Lisette Oropesa, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Paolo Fanale, Franco Vassallo
SET DESIGNER: Paul Steinberg
COSTUME DESIGNER: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
RUNNING TIME: 200 minutes
RATING: ***

 

In Falstaff, Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, contrived to inject a considerable measure of Sir John Falstaff of Henry IV into the bloodstream of the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor. One could easily claim that the operatic adaptation can in many ways be considered an improvement on the original.

The New York Metropolitan Opera’s first new production of Falstaff in nearly 50 years did evoke high expectations on the levels of excitement and pleasure. Another attraction was the return of James Levine, the house’s musical director, after an absence of more than two years because of spinal complications.

The ideal casting of the name character is a make-or-break factor in any Falstaff. The 43-year old Italian baritone, Maestri (pictured), not only lives up to the very specific burly physique of this Shakespearean character who lived in the early 15th century. He delivers the text with relish, but doesn’t always vary his timbre enough to also suggest more sobering experiences. Often a more deeply felt pathos flowing forth out of his treatment at the hands of the merry wives should have been recognisable.

The Canadian director Carsen places the action in post-war 1950s Britain – a shift working well in certain scenes – but doesn’t add much to our understanding of what Verdi and Boito might have had in mind. One example: When Ford and his henchmen in the kitchen scene stalk what they believe to be the cornered Fat Knight (Falstaff), they tear apart the closets and cupboards in a way reminding one of a Marx Brothers movie. It’s only there to create laughs on top of all the havoc.

Perhaps Carsen wanted to prove that Falstaff may be termed the first feminist opera. The women humiliate Falstaff twice, while putting Ford in an awkward position by upsetting his plans for Nannetta, his daughter, who is allowed to marry the man of her, rather than her father’s, choice.

The three main female characters were not only precise in their ensemble work, but each of them worked hard to establish their own characters amid the often farcical bustle which has a natural prominence in this staging.

Meade (Alice Ford) manages to be light-hearted, but also suggests danger; Blyth (Mistress Quickly) creates a presence with her strong mezzo and often seemingly impulsive wit; while Jennifer Cano (Meg Page) effectively demonstrates some off-the-cuff spontaneous moments.

The other main male roles, Vassallo’s Ford, and especially Fanale’s youthful lyricism as Fenton, are ideally cast, while the latter’s love interest, Nanetta (Oropesa), is sung with a perfect combination of spontaneity and feeling.

The Act III scene is only partly successful. It has its magic moments, but some of the movements are unmotivated (Falstaff rolling over the length of the table), while a feeling of tension was lacking.

Levine led the staging as a whole with integrity and confidence. What was amiss was a more sharply pointed and spirited driving force. The Act III fugue became a bit messy because of heaviness.

 

• Falstaff is screening at Cinema Nouveau theatres countrywide.

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