A masterful Maestri leads a superb cast in Met’s Fifties “Falstaff”

Sat Feb 23, 2019 at 2:02 pm
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Ambrogio Maestri and Marie-Nicole Lemieux in Verdi’s “Falstaff” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Karen Almond

As sheer entertainment, there is little in the opera world that surpasses Verdi’s Falstaff. Adapted by librettist Arrigo Boito from Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor—with some borrowings from Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2)—Verdi’s final opera was a hit at the Metropolitan Opera when the new Robert Carsen production debuted in the 2013-14 season. Friday night’s opening of the current revival, starring baritone Ambrogio Maestri in a reprise of his masterful performance, was just as much of a success with the audience.

Falstaff is Verdi’s most exuberant opera, full of musical energy and wit. The form is also freer than most of his works. With few arias or other vocal set pieces, the music of Falstaff is far less homophonic than usual, mainly a running dialogue between singers and orchestra. It’s comic and also a comedy, heavily altered by Boito from its Shakespearian sources but true to the original in prizing ensemble interplay.

Maestri’s Falstaff is expert and lived-in — he seems less born for the part than self-manufactured for it. The character is self-deluding, convinced of his own desirability, controlled by his appetites for food, wine, women, and money. Falstaff is supposed to be abundantly fleshy, but Maestri’s frame is something else altogether: He is tall and wide, oversized, so much larger than everyone else that the rest of the cast appears childlike. This is comic in and of itself, especially in the opening scene: When Falstaff alternately embraces and berates his incompetent companions, Bardolfo (tenor Keith Jameson) and Pistola (bass Richard Bernstein), he’s like their father, dramatically and physically.

The way Maestri moved around the stage in careful, often delicate footsteps was a meaningful detail, speaking to the character’s knighthood even as he’s gone to seed. He was ease and charm personified, never flustered when things went sideways, like when he fumbled trying to pick up and put on his hat with his walking stick in Act II, or after intermission, at the start of Act III. There, Falstaff is bedded down in a stable, recovering from being dumped into the Thames. This being the Met, there was an actual horse on stage, munching hay (the horse got a nice hand from the crowd). As Falstaff began to sing, the horse was supposed to exit stage right, but the animal was reluctant to leave dinner behind. Maestri never skipped a beat, even as he clearly enjoyed the horse banging at the scenery, and even popping its head back into the set to grab another few mouthfuls.

This production is far more than a one-man show, as Maestri was surrounded by a deep and excellent cast. Bass Juan Jesús Rodriguez, as Ford, cut through the ensembles with a cracking edge, and was a fine comic foil in the part. Falstaff pursues Alice Ford and Meg Page (soprano Ailyn Pérez and mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano, who easily sniff out his underhanded intentions and, with the help of Mistress Quickly (contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, also with winning comic charm in her Met debut), turn the tables on the protagonist.

Pérez had her typical polish — an easy, bell-like sound to her voice and the feeling that she was relishing the part. Meg, a sidekick, is not so nearly well-defined in the score, but Cano’s singing was top-notch.

Amidst all the performances, the most purely beautiful singing came from the pair of young lovers, soprano Golda Schultz as the Fords’ daughter Nannetta, and tenor Francesco Demuro as Fenton. They were a pleasure to hear all night; every time they sang they elevated the musical quality of the performance over what was already a high level. In terms of the story, they are an ancillary comic plot — Ford wants his daughter to marry the fussy Dr. Caius (tenor Tony Stevenson, sounding a little thin) — but they often have the best music. Their last-act singing, especially Fenton’s aria “Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola” and Nannetta’s short aria in the guise of a fairy, “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio,” were the musical high points Friday night.

Carsen’s production has been lavished with praise, but on its return visit has some dead spots. It makes an inarguable point about post-World War II English aristocracy sliding into a kind of wasted buffoonery. But Verdi’s all-embracing humanity and sense of fun are so much more compelling: Ford sings out of jealousy in a way that both mocks the character and makes one sympathetic for him. Carsen’s treatment feels reductive.

There is enough tanned wood paneling in the first few scenes to deaden the senses, and after an opening burst of energy the performance turned static, as if lulled by the comforts of the 1950’s sets for much of the first two acts.

But the set and staging at the end of Act II are exceptional. The action takes place in the Fords’ kitchen — all yellow Formica — and overflows with slapstick, like Ford and a seeming crowd of thousands creeping up, in the broadest sense, on the kitchen table, only to discover that underneath is not Falstaff but Nannetta and Fenton. The final-act night scene, with the crowd all wearing antlers against a backdrop of stars, was more gorgeous than it was funny.

Conductor Richard Farnes made his Met debut and without doing anything particularly noticeable or unusual delivered a superb performance. The orchestra was bright, muscular and agile. Between the pit and the singers, this was as musically tight and precise an opening night as one has heard in recent seasons.

Falstaff continues thought March 16. Helena Dix replaces Ailyn Pérez for the March 8 performance. metopera.org; 212-362-6000.


One Response to “A masterful Maestri leads a superb cast in Met’s Fifties “Falstaff””

  1. Posted Feb 23, 2019 at 10:00 pm by Ted Fink

    I agreed with most of your comments except for the fact that the orchestra had lots of problems and the cohesion with the stage left a lot to be desired. In particular, the notoriously difficult ensemble “Quel oltre quel tino” ensemble, in which the women sing in 3/4 time while the men are in 7/8, alla breve, was a disaster.

    I’m sure it’ll improve with more rehearsal, but on the 22nd, IMHO, it was a big disappointment.

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