Robert Carsen’s production of Verdi’s valedictory masterpiece Falstaff was first telecast by the Met in December 2013. It returned today with a new cast. Verdi’s last work for the stage is an operatic sport. There is no work in the canon like it. Its melodic fecundity, mercury-like pace, vocal ingenuity, and its deep insight into human behavior make it unique. Verdi’s other operas are lush and couched in primary colors. Falstaff is made of icy steel and needs a razor’s edge to make its impact.
Carsen chose to set the action in 1950 instead of Elizabethan England. This unnecessary temporal shift did not detract from the show save that it deprived Falstaff of the outrageous outfit he typically wears when he sets out with Ford, disguised as Fontana, to woo Alicia in Act 2. In this production he wears red hunting apparel.
The renowned German baritone Michael Volle portrayed the titular aging knight with ample voice and a gentle mien. The 63 year old baritone’s voice is still strong and up to any vocal challenge. If Ambrogio Maestri’s impersonation of Shakespeare/Verdi’s archetypical comic hero is not imbedded in your memory, Volle’s interpretation would seem quite good. Though comparisons can be unfair, Volle’s depiction alongside that of his Italian colleague seems a sketch. Falstaff says that it is he who drives the action of all around him. So it was in this performance which, like its protagonist, was good without being memorable.
Falstaff is an ensemble opera; each of it roles has substance and accordingly requires considerable musical and dramatic quality from its protagonists. The two Windsor wives – Ailyn Pérez as Alicia and Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg were fine, though Ms Pérez’s sound was a little shrill in Act 1.
Dame Quickly is a great character role for a mezzo. Marie-Nicole Lemieux camped the role a little more than I cared for, though the audience seemed taken by her performance. She seemed to me more interested in show than depth of character.
Christopher Maltman was Ford, one of opera’s juiciest secondary baritone roles. ‘È sogno o realtà?’, Ford’ monologue in Act 2 drops all comedic trappings and lets Verdi, just for a few minutes, be the composer of Rigoletto. Maltman sang the aria well save a few strained top notes. This is such a powerful number that the baritone who sings it can steal the show from Falstaff as Lawrence Tibbett did to Antonio Scotti almost a century ago.
The two lovers, Fenton and Nannetta were very well sung by tenor Bogdan Volkov and soprano Hera Hyesang Park. Both were particularly effective in the opera’s last scene. Volkov has a firm lyric tenor that he used with grace in a part that is very hard to fully realize. Park’s voice is lovely and was particularly fine when she was pretending to be the Fairy Queen.
Chauncey Packer and Richard Bernstein were appropriately antic as Falstaff’s longtime sidekicks, though they were too young to have been with the fat knight for 30 years as specified by Falstaff himself.
Falstaff is a conductor’s opera. The intricate ensemble passages for as many as nine voices did not come off with the elan that is built into them. Maestro Daniele Rustioni got the usual fine playing from the Met’s orchestra, but the excitement and force that is built into the score were not fully realized. Still a good go at a great opera.
The video director was Habib Azar. I think this was the first telecast from the Met directed by him. His work was unobtrusive, which means it was very good. He’s not given to microscopic closeups.
In summary, this was a good performance of an opera that requires a lot from cast and conductor. It’s a work that gains from frequent hearings as Verdi put so much into it that only repeated exposure uncovers all its wonderful inventions. Good enough to warrant a visit to the encore broadcast if you missed the live performance.
Metropolitan Opera House
April 1, 2023
Giuseppe Verdi–Arrigo Boito
Sir John Falstaff…….Michael Volle
Alice Ford…………..Ailyn Pérez
Dame Quickly…………Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Nannetta…………….Hera Hyesang Park
Meg Page…………….Jennifer Johnson Cano
Dr. Caius……………Carlo Bosi
Set Designer…………Paul Steinberg
Costume Designer……..Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer…….Robert Carsen
Lighting Designer…….Peter Van Praet
Stage Director……….Gina Lapinski
Video Director………..Habib Azar