Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Review: Falstaff
Ambrogio Maestri, Ailyn Pérez, Marie-Nicole Lemieux Shine In Vocal, Visual & Hilarious FeastBy David Salazar
This review is for the performance on Feb. 22, 2019.
The month of February might be the Met’s best in 2018-19.
Just a few weeks ago, the company revived Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment” and it proved to be one of its great successes of the season. Propped up by star performances and a brilliant production, it has kept audiences in hysteria throughout its run, which ends on March 2.
But as one comedy closes its doors, another is blasting them wide open again with hysterics of a different, but equally enjoyable variety.
Pure Genius Shines Everywhere
Robert Carsen’s “Falstaff” production is set in the 1950s and is undeniably one of the best, if not THE best, such updatings to grace the Met stage. The director not only translated the world of the story seamlessly into his new setting, but he took advantage of this new world to add to Verdi and Boito’s elegant Shakespearean tale.
With wooden backdrops dominating nearly every scene in the opera, Carsen and his set designer Paul Steinberg take us through a hotel room, a restaurant, a hotel reading room, an obnoxiously beautiful kitchen, a horse stable, and finally the woods, before returning us to a grand hall. Every single locale is simply exquisite to look at and by the time the curtain came up for the second scene of Act two, the audience was in rapture with applause at the vibrancy and life of the Fords’ kitchen with its yellow palette, massive countertops, and endless array of drawer space. This is counterpointed with Falstaff’s epic bed in the first scene and an expansive table that takes the stage in the final scene (materializing by the way without noise that distracts from the music, as is sadly the case in another production of an opera by the same composer and librettist).
There is even a horse, who seemed rather tired with Falstaff’s monologuing about “mondo reo” or how “tutto declina,” turning his back on the knight before kicking the set (at one point he shook the gigantic production, making it look like it might come down; as you might expect, the horse’s night came to an end at that point).
Every minute detail is translated wonderfully, including Alice turning on the radio in lieu of a mandolin for her meeting with Falstaff; that he turns it off moments later after serenading her is a fine touch that emphasizes just how much thought was put into every movement in this setting. Even the burdensome scene changes get their payoff when after sitting through three “brief pauses” in Acts one and two, the first scene of Act three opens up into the ensuing scene; it’s almost like a wink from the director acknowledging the annoyance of those first three pauses. And while one might find the general chaos of seeing papers flying around the stage throughout the climax of Act two threatening to the music, the effect is so hysterical that you find yourself in a very forgiving mood.
The lighting and costume design are impossible to overlook. Carsen designed his lighting with Peter Van Praet and they constantly oscillate between high key lighting and more moody and impressionistic strokes. When Fenton and Nanetta flirt for the first time, the lighting shifts to a cool and alluring blue and time stops, literally. With all the other figures frozen in place, the two lovers woe one another. We get a similar effect during Ford and Falstaff’s monologues; this shifting design literally spotlights the opera’s own structure from fast-paced action to moments of character introspection, allowing the work to generate a dramatic flow that often gets overlooked.
Speaking of the lighting design, let’s talk about the final such gesture in the entire production. With the entire cast downstage during “Tutto nel mondo è burla” the house lights in the Met’s auditorium slowly started to turn on until the entire hall was lit and the fourth wall completely broken. In this moment, the cast pointed out into the audience and uttered “tutti gabbati (everyone’s a fool),” making us all complicit in the opera’s final proclamations.
Finally, the costumes are pure comic gold and emphasize the character dynamics at play. The women have all the style, while the men look rather bland in grey suits or grossly ridiculous; this is the case with both Falstaff’s red get-up when he goes to “make himself beautiful” or whatever Ford’s Fontana disguise is. It is a subtle jab at the power dynamics in the story and emphasizes the imaginative qualities of the women, who ultimately overpower the men through and through over the course of the opera.
I could continue singing the praises of every moment, every gesture of this production, and likely write an entire book on it, but I’ll shift toward the performers themselves, who all gave exquisite renditions.
Any analysis of a performance of Verdi’s comic gem must start with the man in the lead role. For the past few decades, Ambrogio Maestri has made the role his own and his performance on Friday only emphasized this very fact.
He doesn’t just sing or perform Falstaff, he essentially lives it.
His Falstaff is first seen reading a newspaper on an enormous bed, casually listening to Caius’ complaints but barely paying much attention to them. Maestri’s responses here were very matter-of-fact, and uninterested at best, throwing out orders for Pistola and Bardolfo to dispatch with Caius without any real fuss. Even when he got a massive bill rivaling Leporello’s catalogue he didn’t flinch. The reading of the list was colored by a few accents, especially on “un’acciuga;” he made you feel how delicious that anchovy was, which made the moment all the more comic. His critique of his henchman was similarly relaxed and controlled; it all seemed like he had been through this before (which Maestri has done hundreds of times) but added to the authenticity of the relationship with the two leeches.
To put a bow on it all, Maestri emphasized his power and presence at the climax of this passage with a thunderous “Quest’è il mio regno. Lo ingrandirò,” the voice’s incredible potency matching the musical gesture and its suggestion of Falstaff immense pride and girth.
This all contrasted with a pointed “L’Honore” monologue at the close of the scene where Maestri placed incredible emphasis on consonants, the “r’s” rolled with aggressive nature. He expressed tremendous sense of comic timing during the rhetorical questions and the ensuing negations that followed. He expanded on the pauses between them, adding tension in the silence, only to be filled with a curt “No,” that drew chuckles every time. Throw in the bullying of Pistola and Bardolfo, or the eating, and Maestri had you hooked with every behavior.
But then we started to see this façade of a man in control implode bit by bit. Maestri was resplendent in his scenes with Quickly and Ford, his voice bright and lively, which was a perfect counterpoint to the hidden emotions of disgust by the other two characters. In “Va Vecchio John,” Maestri placed great pointedness on the consonants, this time giving the passage a predatory quality. While there were some mishaps with the props (he also endured a similar fate with the horns in the final act), Maestri played it all off with ease, furthering the nature of Falstaff’s happy-go-lucky nature.
He exhibited similar lyrical vibrancy as he attempted to seduce Alice, but there was considerable awkwardness in his attempts, and by the end of the scene, the powerful knight from Act one was now a pathetic tool.
This all climaxed with Falstaff’s great monologue “Eh! Taverniere” where Maestri, laying on hay, eschewed each line crisply with a darkened sound that expressed his bitterness. The brighter timbre from the earlier scenes was essentially gone and wouldn’t return until the end of the opera. From here, his interactions with Quickly and Alice were littered with more aggressive vocalization and unease; Falstaff was becoming unhinged.
It all worked toward stripping the power away from the character laying him bare and vulnerable. Maestri played the fool to perfection in one of the clear-cut best performances of the season.
As Alice Ford, Ailyn Pérez put on one of her more nuanced performances at the Met. Her lush soprano was a perfect fit for Verdi’s soaring lines on “E il viso tuo su me risplenderà;” this line bloomed in Pérez’s voice, the high G sharp bright and resplendent; the latter iteration was similarly wonderful in its execution. Her elegant legato was equally present in the Act three narration “Quando il rintocco,” though in a different manner. The passage sits lower for the soprano, ranging from the D natural above middle C to a fifth above that on A natural; Verdi’s score asks for voce grossa and Pérez’s timbre had ample stability as it funneled vibrantly into the hall. While it was soft, it had fullness in its resonance, adding to the mysterious nature of the narrative.
This expansive line has always been one of Pérez’s greatest strengths as an artist, but she also displayed great vocal nimbleness coupled with impeccable diction throughout. This was present in the tricky “Gaie comari di Windsor” with its rapid Allegro requiring the singing to be “a mezza voce” and still with crystal clear enunciation; Pérez displayed her bravura singing here, retaining brightness of sound while projecting the text efficiently and expressing Alice’s excitement at playing this big trick on Falstaff.
Excited is likely the best way to explain the characterization Pérez developed throughout; her Alice, while annoyed at being played with and disrespected by the men in her life, still retained a humorous approach to everything. Whether it be how she read the letter with gusto or frolicked onstage during the final encounter with Falstaff, you always got a sense of Alice just going with the flow. And that’s what also made her all the more powerful. Because she never betrayed any sense of stress or insecurity, she always looked to be in complete control of the situation. When Falstaff attempted to pull up her dress, she brushed him away playfully, never betraying the disgust.
When Ford tried to chastise his daughter for her betrayal, Pérez’s Alice walked over to him, brushed him up and eased his temper.
When we talk about the great operatic comedies such as “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,,” “Don Pasquale,” or “Falstaff,” the common thread is how the women are always one step ahead of the men, who are portrayed as emotionally unstable fools. Pérez was the personification of poised and collected both physically and vocally.
Meanwhile, Juan Jesús Rodríguez’s Ford was a perfect counterpoint. He stood tall and firm, but he was always temperamental about something. From the opening scenes where he is told about the plot to take down Falstaff, he looked agitated. When he stormed into his house, he was a furious hurricane, his singing brusque and aggressive. He played the part of a schemer with Caius at the close of the third act’s first scene and in the final moments, when his plan is foiled, he looked rabid and furious, ready to attack anyone around him. Only his wife seemed capable of calming him.
This lack of control is obviously spotlighted in the opening of Act two when Ford, disguised as Fontana, comes to meet Falstaff. Rodríguez tried to play it off as cool and collected, but at moments, he walked away from Falstaff, trying to find an outlet for his burning rage. It provided perfect visual counterpart to the more relaxed Falstaff, as you wondered whether Ford would suddenly take to beating his rival. Verdi’s music toys with this dynamic, having Ford briefly explode at one point, and Rodríguez’s sound fired through the hall as he stormed toward the door before stopping himself.
He got that release during the famed monologue “E sogno o realta?” which was the baritone’s best moment of the night, bar none. Throughout, you sensed a push and pull between the ferocious beast unleashed and the dignified gentleman that Ford tried to put on. Here he ripped into the anger of the character, exuding disgust in the lines preceding “lo scoppio,” that final line punctuated by a soaring “Vendicheró l’affronto!” The final “Laudata sempre sia,” sung with a cathartic crescendo up to the high G, betrayed profound pain and sense of loss that intentionally echoes Otello’s similarly pained “Dio mi potevi.” The icing on the cake for the close of the scene was seeing Rodíguez go from such a frenzied, intense, and unhinged emotional moment to playing it exceedingly nice with Maestri’s Falstaff; here he exaggerated his “prima voi,” betraying a sense of frustration that he was working to hide.
The Scene Stealers
There were two major scene stealers on the night.
The first of these was mezzo Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who made her Met Opera debut earlier this year in “Pelléas et Mélisande.” While she definitely did her part in that show, her exquisite talents were essentially buried in that work, especially since her role of Geneviève is rather brief. But that was never going to happen in “Falstaff,” especially in the role of Quickly, which seemed tailor-made for her talents.
Sporting a lush mezzo and a vast array of colors, you couldn’t miss a single thing she did. She seduced Falstaff throughout their scene together in Act two, flicking her foot as she uttered “Reverenza” and stripping off her coat in another moment. The music is placed low in a perfect middle register for the mezzo, allowing her to just feast on the line; Lemieux’s sound glowed throughout, making her seduce the audience with its lush legato. This was most present throughout “un angelo che innamora a guardar la.” She hounded him, making Maestri’s Falstaff look exceptionally uncomfortable (no doubt giving him a taste of his own medicine and making him feel the way he makes other women feel). And you ate it all up; every movement, every vocal exaggeration, especially on her rich chest-voiced “Povera donna,” which were often accompanied by some other suggestive gesture toward Falstaff. It was pretty clear who owned the scene, and Lemieux put a massive exclamation point on it when she swung her coat and hit a man reading a newspaper with it as she exited. The audience exploded with laughter here at what was the ultimate diva moment of the night
In the ensuing scene, her interplay with Jennifer Johnson Cano’s Meg was equally fantastic. With everyone going haywire around the house, the two cleaned up the kitchen, feasted on some snacks on the counter, and simply played it cool. Her scolding of Falstaff as the two stuffed him into the clothes bin was memorable for its abrasive and harsh manner; her dominance over him was complete. In the third act, she was back to her playacting with him, and her initiation of the narrative oozed with clear fluid legato.
The other big scene stealer was soprano Golda Schultz whose star is rising and will likely shine brightly for years to come. he South African soprano’s voice is angelic, every line effortlessly placed, her intonation impeccable. “Sul fin d’un soffio estesio” was glorious, every line caressed gracefully with her gentle timbre. At the close of the aria, she floated a sublime high A natural, which was just the latest of a series of similar vocal feats; she had also exhibited similar musical polish at the close of Fenton’s aria and their “duet” in the first act. It was all masterfully executed and matched up with this ideal of Nannetta as a pure and innocent being. In terms of pure vocal beauty, Schultz shone on a different level from everyone else.
She also managed a strong portrayal of Nannetta, playing her as a curious teenager. We saw this in her reactions to the gossip with the women, but also in her hard-to-get flirtation with Fenton in their early interactions. Eventually however, she slowly gave in and the two turned into the “sugar” that Boito famously stated with regards to how he saw the two lovebirds in the context of the story.
Final Vibrant Pieces of the Puzzle
As the final piece of the women of Windsor, Jennifer Johnson Cano delivered with a lush mezzo-soprano sound and her own fair share of fantastic comic timing. This was most present in the concertato at the close of Act two as both her and Lemieux chastised and bullied Falstaff back into the clothes bin. During the wedding, she played the flower girl, skipping around the two lovers and drawing laughter every single time; the joke was repeated many times but never got old because her amusement was simply contagious.
As Fenton, Francesco Demuro’s lyric tenor was at its finest in the sonnet “Dal labbro il canto estasiato” as he rode the expansive lines as far as his voice would take him. There was a general sense of freedom in the line, supported by a brighter timbre. His Fenton came off as a naïve boy throughout the performance, almost childish in his interplay with Schultz’s Nannetta, and the sense of wonder he exhibited while taking on the aria and looking about the stage further accentuated this characterization.
As his vocal and dramatic rival, Tony Stevenson’s comic tenor was perfect for the awkward Caius. Caius, next to Falstaff, is the character most ridiculed in the opera. He gets shoved off like nothing in the first scene, gets rejected by Nannetta, and then winds up marrying Bardolfo in the opera’s final scene. The opera already sets him up as such, but Stevenson allowed for the payoff to shine, making his character a coward in his opening confrontation and simply looked like a creep as he tried to woe Nannetta in the third act. The addition of this moment in the Act not only adds to the exchange he shares with Ford at the close of the first scene, but also provide ample contrast with how Fenton won over the girl. Where Demuro utilized playful demeanor, Stevenson was completely clueless, his accented singing only adding to this nature on the whole.
As Pistola and Bardolfo, Richard Bernstein and Keith Jameson played off one another beautifully, particularly in the first scene of the opera when faced with Maestri’s towering presence. Even when they tried to stand up to him briefly prior to the honor monologue, you knew it was all a ruse and they had no real way to stand up to Falstaff. They looked out of place all the time, which added to their comic nature, especially in the ensuing restaurant when their awkwardness drew reactions from other people littering the locale. Vocally they matched one another quite well in their hilarious recitations of “Amen” or their “Siam pentiti;” as they pounded their chests in the latter while singing the grace note in the passage, it was impossible not to remember Matthew McConaughey’s similarly comic chest pounding in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Holding the Ship Together
Maestro Richard Farnes enjoyed a successful Met Opera debut, guiding the massive ensemble quite well overall.
“Falstaff” is one of the trickiest scores to interpret as it has an intense sense of propulsion with moments flying by. That said, the opera is wrapped up in breathtaking lyricism that requires a sense of expansion to truly explore its dramatic and comic depth. Every conductor must manage his balance well or you tend toward an opera that becomes incomprehensible or one that loses its irresistible energy.
Farnes managed the balance quite well. He tended toward quicker tempi throughout, particularly in the opening scene, the prelude for Act three, and the Act two finale, adding to the tension of the general frenzy of the latter section. But he did also manage a sense of expansiveness in the phrasing, particularly in anything involving Fenton and Nanetta, allowing for the audience to simply revel in the vocal beauty on offer.This was also apparent in Ford’s “È sogno o realta” and Falstaff’s “L’ Honore? Laddri!” In this case, the lyrical freedom suited the production’s own touches with lighting, creating a refreshing sense of oneness between the stage director’s vision and that of the maestro in the pit.
Act two, scene one and Act three, scene two were likely the best overall in terms of finding this balance. Farnes was able to move from a frenzied reading of Ford’s monologue to a whimsical coda between the two men as they exchanged pleasantries. The final scene of the opera moved from very lyrical rapture to rollicking fun in the massive choral pieces. One of the most memorable passages in the entire performance was Falstaff’s entrance in the second scene of Act three.The Andante sostenuto, with its repeated 32nd note passages, was shaped with a tense crescendo with the first three repetitions before dimineundoing; a sudden Fortissimo jolted the listener, amplifying Falstaff’s own sense of fear at this strange surrounding.
That said, there were still moments in the performance that were no quite so tidy, many the result of the fast tempi employed by the maestro. The major vocal ensembles, particularly the end of Act one, were a bit chaotic and the sense of cohesion not fully apparent. It’s one of the most challenging passages in opera with the women’s ensemble and male ensemble juxtaposed against one another rhythmically, all tied together by Fenton’s vocal line; it sounded like each ensemble was on its own trying to thrust forward. This lack of unity was also present in the Act two pezzo concertato, where some of the soloists’ prominent vocal moments were buried by not only the frenzy onstage, but in the pit. One other moment that had this lack of fluidity came at the opening to Act three with basses and celli mushing together in the opening entrances, making the tempo hard to distinguish in the hall; that made the other entrances from other instruments a bit sloppy at first. Eventually it all came together and crescendoed brilliantly, but the initial incomprehension was off-putting. The fast tempi were likely the result of this, but credit must be given to the maestro for taking the risk of pushing the pace; most would likely take it safe with slower and more comfortable tempi, to the detriment of the opera’s energy. These are the kinds of ensemble issues that are likely to be sorted out and improved throughout the run, which makes it all the more promising, given that the opera’s grand massive ensemble finale was one of its finest moment.
On the whole, this “Falstaff” revival is not only a reminder that this is one of the greatest operas ever conceived, but that the Met is at its best when it is assembling strong casts for its comedies. In conjunction with “La Fille du Régiment” earlier this month, this has been the best one-two punch of the Met’s 2018-19 season to date.