I’ll tickle your catastrophe

I think it was W.C. Fields who said that sharing the stage with children and animals is a bad plan. The Met could well have listened. Their new Falstaff is nearly stolen by a placid, grass-eating horse, whose blithe equine indifference to his surroundings is a proper illustration of Falstaff’s character. The rest is, pace my Shakespearean headline, hardly catastrophic–Levine is Levine and this is one of his favorites, the hard-working cast sings pretty well, and Robert Carsen’s production is thoroughly professional–but the horse is the closest we get to the soul of wit. (I’m basically saying what Intermezzo already did. As usual, she’s right.)

Verdi, Falstaff. Met Opera, 12/6/2013. New production premiere directed by Robert Carsen, sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuehl, lights by Carsen and Peter Van Praet. Conducted by James Levine with Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff), Angela Meade (Alice), Stephanie Blythe (Quickly), Lisette Oropesa (Nanetta), Paolo Fanale (Fenton), Franco Vassallo (Ford)

Carsen is the ultimate internationalist; he’s everywhere and can be trusted to put on a “modern,” competent show that (with the exception of his Candide) won’t, um, startle the horses. He’s certainly a director with visual trademarks: he likes the 1950s, giant beds, dramatic shadows, lots of chairs, and carefully tailored costumes. (See this and this.) Some of his productions can be very beautiful and insightful, but this unfortunately isn’t one of them. The 1950s setting makes sense: Falstaff is a fallen, anachronistic aristocrat and the Fords and Pages are new money. Each scene contains food: the tavern, a chic restaurant for the ladies (where Fenton is a waiter), a men’s club, Alice’s giant kitchen, and finally a banquet in the woods. A wooden wall looms behind most of the scenes, and it’s in general a handsome production. But for an opera already weighted down by a lot of fat jokes, it’s unclear what this culinary focus really adds. It’s kind of one-note in a tiresome way, for an opera that is anything but. (There’s something about a gastro-centric postwar setting–feast after a time of famine, etc. Look at Albert Herring. But Falstaff isn’t Hänsel und Gretel.)

Fortunately, Carsen gets the giant bed out of the way in the first scene of this one. Falstaff starts the opera in it. Exactly what that bed is doing in the middle of a tavern escapes me, which points to the production’s larger problem of tone and setting. The opera turns on a dime between slapstick, romance, and poignancy, but the production, while good-natured, isn’t so agile. There are some funny bits–most notably when Ford leads in a giant crowd of men to search and trash Alice’s kitchen–but this is a production with surprisingly little wit or wisdom, unsure of what it is about. The characters have little shape and it’s just not that funny. Even obvious joke moments like Ford and Falstaff walking through the door together and Falstaff sneaking up on Alice don’t land as clear punch lines. (There’s also some bad blocking–Nanetta keeps having to get up from her seat in the restaurant and cross behind Alice so she can see the conductor.) There’s no magic in the bare wooden walls and stage of the forest, and it’s unclear why the chorus is an army of be-antlered Falstaff doubles. It ends with lighting the house for the fugue. Raising the house lights to go “YOU TOO!” is the cheapest Brechtian shortcut a director can pull, and here it’s too little too late. It moves along, but all the Carsen tropes are dressed up without anywhere to go.

(I must note that I vastly preferred Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production, which I saw in May and unfortunately didn’t have time to write about. It’s also set in the 1950s, but is decidedly more surreal, inventive, and funnier, including things like a running joke involving a cat and a giant cabbage patch. The characters are given real personalities and the craft fair magic of the fairies is beautifully human.)

Falstaff is a James Levine signature piece and he brings a bounce and light to the music that was missing from the production (particularly in the last act). It’s quick, light, and transparent, but quiet when it needs to be. That being said, there were a few ensemble coordination issues in Act 1, particularly between the two sides of the stage (men on one side, women on the other). Things improved.

The cast is reasonably strong. Ambrogio Maestri, however, was not a particularly interesting Falstaff. He’s got the big round voice for it, and the round shape, but while musically fine it was a one-dimensional characterization, little more than a teddy bear.* He made little of the “una parola” section of the “Onore” monologue, and seemed reluctant to play the forrest scene for anything but laughs. This was definitely the first time I’ve seen Ford as the more interesting character. Franco Vassallo was genuinely funny in the Signor Fontana scene (wearing a cowboy outfit), and managed to make the final scene something of a Figaro-Count junior version. His singing was solid and warm-toned, but sometimes drowned out by the orchestra. As Fenton, Paolo Fanale had a very beautiful sound in the serenade in Act 3, but was completely drowned out in the ensembles.

As Alice Ford, Angela Meade put in a valiant effort, acting-wise, and this was by far the most animated performance I’ve seen from her. She doesn’t seem to have much in the way of comic timing–she needs to go way bigger in her reactions–but the production didn’t give her much to work with. Vocally, it’s kind of a thankless role and doesn’t show off all she can do, but she has a sweet and youthful tone and managed to punch out the staccato bits strongly. In contrast, Nanetta’s music is a gift to any light soprano, and the Met has fortunately cast Lisette Oropesa, possibly the best singer they have in this Fach. She sang “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” with beautifully light, clear, crystalline tone, and her high notes hang in the air forever. On the low side, Stephanie Blythe as Mistress Quickly sounded like a very loud trombone. This role is her ideal Fach as well–she’s much better here than she is in higher Verdi stuff. The supporting roles were fine, with one of the tenors sounding really honking nasal loud in the fugue (I think it was Keith Jameson as Bardolfo, who was pretty loud the whole way through).

This production is an import from the ROH Covent Garden. This is the third new production this season and all three have been imported from London–Onegin and Two Boys both came from the English National Opera. This seems like a bit much. Why can’t the Met develop its own aesthetic rather than import another city’s wholesale? That being said, apparently Des McAnuff was originally slated to direct a new Falstaff, and this one was swapped after his disastrous Faust (which was itself an import form, yep, London). So I guess we dodged a bullet here.

See you at Feuersnot next week. I’ll add more photos to this post when I can find them, you can see photos of the London cast over at Intermezzo.

*[Insert Harold Bloom critique of Merry Wives here.] Someday I’m going to direct a production of Falstaff that is set in an academic department, with Falstaff as a Bloom-like figure, Alice a clever full professor, Nanetta as a grad student, and Mistress Quickly the stalwart department coordinator.

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  1. Thanks for the thorough report; I'm sorry to hear that the production didn't match the orchestra's excellence. I would love to see an academic-department Falstaff, also.

  2. I'm looking forward to the HD presentation. At the same time, I kind of wish I'd lived during the time of Toscanini, who once refused to conduct a rehearsal of Falstaff when he saw that neither the tavern nor Ford's house were in Elizabethan style. He just left the theater and said something like "Let me know when it's Elizabethan." The constant search for originality of setting has become tediously un-original…

  3. What about Salzburg production from last summer that was set in an old age home? I liked that one.

    Also, Dr. Opera: I hasten to point out that The Merry Wives of Windsor's literal setting is the Plantagenet period, not Elizabethan. (Falstaff = Henry IV era.)