Metropolitan Opera 2022-23 Review: Falstaff
Marie-Nicole Lemieux Steals the show as Miss QuicklyBy Chris Ruel
On Mar. 12, 2023, the Metropolitan Opera revived and gave the Robert Carsen-directed “Falstaff” its season premiere, marking the company’s 193rd performance that crackled with energy and verve. There was electricity in the crowd, as well. At times, an opening night can feel like a final dress rehearsal. This was not one of those times. The show was tight and seemed well into its run.
Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Falstaff” is a comedic masterpiece based on Shakespeare’s character Sir John Falstaff. The plot revolves around the larger-than-life, aging knight who is down on his luck and in need of money. Falstaff hatches a plan to seduce two wealthy women, Alice Ford, and Meg Page, hoping to steal their husbands’ fortunes. The women discover his plot and then join forces to teach Falstaff a lesson and have some fun in the process.
Falstaff finds himself in a series of humorous situations, including being thrown into the Thames River from a laundry basket to escape Ford (Alice’s husband) and disguised as a mystical creature for a forest scene that, if featured in anything other than a comedy, would terrify.
Verdi filled the opera with intricate musical motifs and witty wordplay, making it a genuine delight for opera lovers and fans of Shakespearean comedy alike. Falstaff’s redemption at the end of the opera is a testament to how anybody—including a down-on-his-luck, lecherous aristocrat can attain personal growth.
Yet the opera has something else to say: things change, and sometimes irrevocably so. The days of Falstaff’s privilege and proclivities were giving way to modernity, and the power of society’s elite was crumbling. The world Falstaff knew was fading into the rearview mirror fast.
A Grumpy, Loveable Falstaff
The vocals in “Falstaff” were so sparkling and joyous that they left the entire audience grinning from ear to ear. And when the curtain came down, the auditorium filled with shouting and clapping equally as energetic as the singing.
In the title role was Michael Volle, a renowned German baritone who quickly gained recognition for his powerful and expressive voice, as well as his ability to convey complex emotions—and comedy—through his singing and top-notch acting. The baritone is familiar with the role of the rotund knight, with five title role appearances. Additionally, he has sung the part of Ford six times.
Volle’s voice has depth and resonance, and a hell of a lot of power. His repertoire is full of big-voiced roles: Don Giovanni (Don Giovanni), the Nemesis (Contes d’ Hoffmann), Scarpia (Tosca), and numerous roles in R. Strauss’ operas, likewise Wagner’s. Volle had no trouble projecting and filling the cavernous Met with his massive voice. While big, the baritone brought excellent use of dynamics, and he has a solid, unwavering, and secure head voice.
As John Falstaff, Volle was at his comedic best, presenting a picture of the knight as charmingly cantankerous, buffoonish, yet entirely human in his pride. Volle’s interpretation was a mix of a boisterous blowhard and a sad man, clearly at the end of his attractiveness. The baritone’s sense of timing and all-around impressive acting kept the audience laughing throughout the show, sometimes something as simple as trying to extricate his behind from a leather club chair.
Altogether, Volle presented a grumpy yet loveable Falstaff.
However, Volle’s blunder-filled machinations as Falstaff were matched with those of a far more wily character, Mistress Quickly, sung by Marie-Nicole Lemieux.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux Steals the Show
Canadian contralto Lemieux stands with some of opera’s most acclaimed contraltos. She is highly regarded for her baroque repertoire, certainly a far cry from the slapstick of “Falstaff.”
In a 2019 interview with OperaWire, Lemieux spoke of her approach to the sly character upon whose scheming the opera revolves.
“I created this particular staging of Mistress Quickly six years ago at Covent Garden,” Lemieux stated. “For me, she’s like an old friend; she’s part of me. I don’t get tired of playing her because it’s great to be on stage and hear people laughing!
“… Yes, you need musical precision, but you also have to play and have fun. That’s risky; just singing Mistress Quickly is much safer, but it’s not very interesting. When it all comes together, the result makes people happy, so very happy!”
The Met audience was immensely happy. In every scene in which she participated, the laughs came fast and furious, from displaying her wares to rook him into her seducing Alice and Meg to kicking and sitting on the enormous laundry bin to keep Falstaff from showing himself.
Lemieux stole the show. Every time she entered, something funny was on the horizon. Miss Quickly’s scheming echoed that of an early earlier schemer, Despina. Like Mozart’s character, Miss Quickly is clever and resourceful, and her matronly appearance is a façade.
Vocally, the score has Lemieux all over the registers; high-low-and in-between. She showed the versatility for which she is known and didn’t shy away from the upper reaches of her voice, hitting the high notes with strength.
Lemieux owns the role—physically, mentally, and vocally and she will be the measure by which Miss. Quicklys are judged. For future interpreters, the bar has been set a mile high.
Playing the Fords were Ailyn Pérez (Alice) and Christopher Maltman (Ford). Of the two, Maltman had the stronger performance. His hijinks bordered on cartoonish, and it was fantastic. Particularly enjoyable was his attempt to catch Falstaff with Alice.
After enlisting a group of men to accompany him home, thinking he can catch the clownish Falstaff, they come up empty-handed. Ford proceeds to ransack his own home. The cabinets are emptied, their contents flung all over the stage, and likewise linens.
When he thinks he has finally located the aging cad, Ford sneaks around, Bugs Bunny-like, lifting his legs high as he tip-toes towards his prey … only to find Nannetta and Fenton making out under the kitchen table. Meanwhile, Falstaff is roasting and gasping for air in a clothes bin, unable to lift the lid because Miss Quickly is sitting on top.
Pérez had good energy, and her voice was in fine shape, but she didn’t carry the same electricity as her co-stars. Hers was a fine performance vocally with nothing to knock, but it lacked the pizzazz that can make Alice THE major player in the comedy.
However, when paired with Lemieux, mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano (Meg), and soprano Hera Hyesang Park (Nannetta), the quartet was a formidable vocal and acting ensemble that was highly entertaining to hear and watch.
Young Love & Sidekicks
Alongside Park was tenor Bogdan Volkov, who has a trumpet of a voice that’s round and silky-smooth. Taken together, Park/Volkov pair was well-cast. Their characters’ stolen kisses, furtive glances, and palpable desire for one another were products of their stage chemistry. The couple foreshadows a similar pairing in a comedic opera: Lauretta and Rinuccio in “Gianni Schicchi.”
Volkov’s sonnet in Act three was touchingly delivered and matched the delicate atmosphere of the scene (a captivating starscape).
Like Lauretta, Nannetta is “barred” from her true love and envisions a bleak future in an arranged marriage with Dr. Caius, sung by Carlo Bosi. Caius is an unlikeable character from the moment he opens his mouth, upbraiding the portly knight while also accusing Falstaff’s ner-do-well friends Bardolfo and Pistola of stealing his money, which of course, they have.
Chauncey Packer as Bardolfo and Richard Bernstein as Pistola alternately worked for and against their friend, exasperating him to no end. While not slapping or bonking each other on the head, a la “The Three Stooges,” they were goofy, clumsy, and endearing.
Making a cameo, Sir Gabriel, the Met’s multifaceted mule, did a remarkable job eating hay as Falstaff, full of self-pity, wallowed in a barn. The scene begged the question: who’s the real ass?
The Robert Carsen production is visually stunning. The opera is set in the early 1950s, a time of relative calm and prosperity when the middle class sprung into bloom. Money was no longer relegated to the privileged, such as Falstaff. His world of oak-walled clubs and hunts was in decline. The privileged knight is so broke he has to scheme to scrounge up money. Meanwhile, the Fords live in a thoroughly modern home with the latest appliances and a large kitchen. A humiliating reminder that the world is evolving, with or without him.
The show opens in Falstaff’s room at the Garter Inn, which in Carsen’s production, is a nice hotel. The masculine setting is the least interesting of the sets, though it is far less bleak than the barn later in the show.
The jaw-dropping visuals of a reimagined Garter Inn appear in Act two, Scene one; the audience is swept into a supper club atmosphere with a tuxedoed waitstaff moving about the room lit by gleaming chandeliers. It’s not the Gilded Age, but it has the same sumptuous appearance.
Act three takes place in a forest, and the set is cleverly designed. The paneled walls used throughout the opera split apart, revealing a starry sky. The illusion is striking and provides a sliver of a break from the raucous action that preceded it and the gleefully nightmarish Windsor Forest scene.
Here, the walls are lit with a delicate shade of blue, and the lights are positioned so the actors on stage cast giant shadows. At first, the forest is empty. Then we see a Falstaff approach as his shadow appears on the wall.
For those familiar with “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the headgear worn by Falstaff and the scores of witches will remind you of the Knights Who Say Ni. Ridiculous antlers reach skyward, and Falstaff looks utterly silly in his long underwear and horned hat.
Cue the fog. As mist drifts upwards, an increasing number of similarly-horned witches enter. If the context were changed, you might not sleep well; it’s creepy to see shadow after shadow appearing on the walls before surrounding the roly-poly knight. The scene gets even darker, and the wicked tableau looks as if it’s about to slip from comedy into horror as each witch pulls a shiny dagger and proceeds to menace the fear-stricken Falstaff calling for him to be poked and prodded.
The terror in the forest brings about Falstaff’s redemption–it was his dark night of the soul. A grand banquet ensues. The scheme is complete, and Falstaff has learned his lesson. Verdi’s famous fugue, “Everything in the world is a joke,” ends the show…?
No, there was one last prank to pull.
Everything stopped—the chorus and cast ceased singing, and the audience expected the curtain to fall; nothing about it seemed contrived.
But just as the audience began their applause, Volle stepped to the stage’s lip and scolded the audience, wagging his finger, before the fugue finished for real. However, Volle kept his eyes on the audience and pointed at people as if to say, “I’m watching you.”
With the fourth wall broken, suddenly, the joke was on us. Laughter turned to wonder: had we been hoodwinked into thinking we were just observers?
On the podium was Daniele Rustioni, a conductor known for his musicality and ability to bring out the best in orchestral and vocal performances. His style was dynamic, precise, and vibrant, with a strong focus on exactitude. The maestro led the incomparable Met Orchestra through a very difficult score with unrestrained exuberance while maintaining sharp accuracy.
Verdi’s score both converses and leads the singers, reflecting the hijinks and often chaotic scenes. The music is part of the humor and was, in many ways, part of the cast, as the interplay between the vocalists and the pit was undeniably present.
While precision is key for any orchestra, Verdi’s score is full of musical moments that back up the parlando sections, allowing the orchestral line to take over the melody or comment.
This is a barnstormer of an opera with moment after moment of musical ideas. Blink, and you’ve missed one. Likewise for the arias. Verdi hasn’t left these behind for this ensemble work, but they’re here in a flash and gone in an instant, some not longer than 30 seconds before moving on.
Rustioni interpreted the score, which, in terms of forward movement, is unstoppable, like Rossini’s “Barber.” The maestro played it that way, swelling the orchestra with big crescendos (as big as Flagstaff’s belly!) that could have thrown a weighted blanket over the vocal line. Yet, Rustioni did an excellent job of not going too loud, and the soloists’ voices remained audible.
The chorus was in brilliant form, and the Met actors were superb in executing their craft. Without their virtuosity and skill, the show would have suffered.
“Falstaff” is a show in which everybody on stage has to pull their weight… Especially Falstaff with his enormous gut.
Lemieux, in her 2019 OperaWire interview, captured the soul of “Falstaff,” saying:
“Verdi gave us a beautiful lesson. At 80 years old, he chose a comedy as his last opera because I think it was the culmination of all he had learned about humility and life. At the end of the opera, when Quickly asks Falstaff how he could’ve possibly believed the two young women would fall in love with him, he shrugs it off, agreeing with her. ‘Yes, yes, you’re right. Ah! But it was fun!’”
And fun it was.
“Falstaff” runs at the Met Opera from Mar. 12 – April 1, 2023.