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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Opera Review: The Real Housewives of Windsor

The Met unveils Robert Carsen's Falstaff.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hampered: Falstaff (Ambrogio Maestri, center) seeks an exit in Act II of Verdi's comedy.
Helping him are Meg Page (Jennifer Jonson Cano, l.) and Mistress Quickly (Stephanie Blythe.)
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
Falstaff is unique. Verdi's last opera (and his lone successful comedy) arrived when the composer was 79 and still in full command of his powers. Yet despite its tunefulness, the score lacks the "big numbers" of Rigoletto, Aida and Otello, choosing to present the comedy as a complex dialogue between singers and orchestra. As a result, Falstaff, though a respected opera is considered an opera for connoisseurs, and appears only occasionally on the operatic stage.

The Metropolitan Opera's new production by Robert Carsen attempts to correct that problem by moving Sir John's antics to 1950s England, and confining most of the action (including the forest scene) within the walls of the Garter Inn. Some of the scenes (Falstaff in bed, the second scene of Act II) have the quality of a television sitcom--with the antics that result in Falstaff's dunking in the Thames recalling an especially hectic episode of Cheers. The finale, with the whole cast in antlers rolling a pajama'd Falstaff down a long dining room table has the quality of a nightmare, especially since the act's end has everyone out of antlers and back at the supper table!

Ambrogio Maestri reimagined the fat knight as a proud, bull-like figure, rampaging through post-war British society in a red Moss Bros. tailcoat with a cheerful disregard for its manners and mores. Mr. Maestri needs no padding or pillows to achieve Falstaff's signature girth. That wide belly and chest produce a solid, deep-cored basso which, at full flight generates a powerful, if not especially sweet tone. There are elements of grandeur in this performance, alternating with comic agility. He is also an experienced comic actor in the old mold, always fighting for the center of attention and interacting expertly with the glittering supporting cast.

The object of Falstaff's questionable intentions is Alice Ford, played here by bel canto diva Angela Meade. Revealing a previously unknown ability as a comic actress, Ms. Meade fended off his asaults with good-natured parlando and the occasional sparkling high note note, culminating in a series of complex humiliations that resulted in Falstaff's famous bath in the Thames. She is a '50s housewife with attitude and determination, the absolute mistress of her vast Formica kitchen, who can nonetheless lunch (at the Garter) with her fellow merry wives: Meg Page (Jennifer Johnson Cano) Mistress Quickly (the outstanding mezzo Stephanie Blythe) and the Fords' daughter Nannetta (Lisette Oropesa.)

As Quickly, Ms. Blythe used the very bottom of her huge instrument to roll out the siren call of "Reverrrenza!" Ms. Oropesa was sweet of tone and ideal as the coquettish Nanetta, paired with tenor Paolo Fanale as Fenton--his first role at the Met. One always wants more from these lovers' brief interludes, which contain some of the prettiest notes that Verdi ever set to paper. Her Act III aria in Windsor Forest seemed to stop the bustle of the opera in its tracks, one last contemplation of the old master's ability to write a gorgeous tune.

The opera seemed to lose momentum in Act II's early scenes. (Perhaps because the Met is insisting on performing the first two acts of Falstaff without an intermission.) Baritone Serban Vasile made his Met debut (subbing for an ill Franco Vassallo) but proved to be a dull Ford. He was simply not angry enough. Far better were  Pistola and Bardolfo, played with character and force by Christian Van Horn and Keith Jamieson respectively, and tenor Carlo Bosi as a funny, engaging Doctor Cajus.

This is the first new production James Levine has conducted at the Met since his return earlier this year. The weeks of careful preperation were evident in the taut ensemble playing and capering, nimble orchestral accompaniment. Mr. Levine could be seen enthusiastically leading the cast from his new mechanical perch in the pit, working individually with the singers even as the complex final fugue blazed into life. At the final "Tutta gabbati!" the lights came up in the house briefly. This Falstaff's last laugh was at its own audience.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.