The Metropolitan Opera is offering audiences a warm welcome to relieve them from the cold weather with Robert Carsen’s witty new staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff.”
The production marks the second opera that the Met’s Music Director James Levine has led since his two-year hiatus away from the conductor’s podium due to injury. This, with the aid of a superior cast, resulted in an evening brimming with comic mirth and musical delight.
“Falstaff”—the final work of Verdi’s celebrated career—is an operatic retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” In it, the eponymous knight, after living a most prodigal lifestyle, finds himself in search of a solution to his enormous debt problem. He quickly crafts a plan to woo Alice Ford and Meg Page, well-to-do ladies of Windsor, and reap the benefits of their wealth. Fortunately, they discover his deceit and plot to give Falstaff his full, and hilarious, comeuppance. It is an opera full of heartwarming humor and a joyous finale for its composer’s virtuosic output.
To faithfully represent Verdi’s masterful comedy to modern audiences, Carsen sets the action in 1950s Britain. It is a time period that still harkens back to the nation’s traditional past while also looking forward to a modern future—stuffy riding wear and men’s clubs share the stage with trendy updos and a bright sunshiny kitchen. This setting perfectly complements the original locale—an England that includes both old-fashioned formalities and wily schemers—and as the comedy builds continually to a frenzied conclusion, Carsen’s production skillfully sustains the joviality throughout.
More than any other of Verdi’s operas, “Falstaff” requires an ensemble of strong singers able to sacrifice individual spotlights in service of the greater whole. Yet the title character does rise above the crowd to guide the work through many madcap situations.
Embodying the larger-than-life Sir John Falstaff, Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri brings his acclaimed portrayal to the Met for the first time. It’s no wonder that Maestri has had such success in the part—he uses ample sound and solid technique to convey the part’s nimble passages and thunderous high notes. Similarly, his comedy can be either broad or subtle depending on the circumstance. Maestri’s performance is nothing short of a tour de force.
Rising American soprano Angela Meade portrays Alice Ford, and although the role offers few opportunities for Meade to display her vocal virtuosity, she manages an accomplished performance nonetheless. Equally strong is veteran mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who reprises her portrayal of the crafty Dame Quickly with her trademark resonant chest voice and superb comic timing.
The other star of the show is Maestro Levine himself, whose affection for and knowledge of the work are evident as his orchestra plays an exuberant account of Verdi’s genius score. The music is constantly shifting stylistically, and this quality gives it an exciting forward momentum. At every turn, Levine captures the magic in Verdi’s masterpiece.
Shakespeare buffs may relish this chance to see classic characters recreated on an operatic scale, but “Falstaff” can also appeal to a much wider audience. The comedy is charming, the music displays Verdi at his best, and the new Carsen production is incredibly intelligent. Don’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy this clear highlight on the Met’s schedule.
Performances of “Falstaff” run through Jan. 11. Tickets start at $20.