At the Met, poor Falstaff is upstaged by a horsemain
Our shrewd judge Steve Rubin feels let down by the Met’s new show:
photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Robert Carsen’s Met debut was an evocative and beautiful production of EUGENE ONEGIN, which this season was summarily replaced by Fiona Shaw’s drab, conservative interpretation of the Tchaikovsky masterpiece. Now the tables have been turned as Carsen’s new production of FALSTAFF has caused the scrapping of Franco Zeffirelli’s universally adored 50-year-old take on Verdi’s final opera.
Carsen is much too intelligent and interesting a director for this undertaking to be dismissed in the manner Shaw’s was. But his FALSTAFF is a very mixed bag. Most perplexing is why he reset it in post World War II England. The sets don’t look particularly English; the final scene in Act II in fact looks like a Fifties American suburban kitchen.
His design team has a field day with flamboyant and often funny costumes, but why else we are the 20th century eluded me. Carsten always seems to favor walled-in sets and that’s the case here, where the unit sets goes kerflooey in Act III: outside the Garter Inn is nothing but a drab room where the prime attraction is a very hungry live horse munching away and upstaging poor Ambrogio Maestri as a sodden and defeated Sir John. The magical final scene is Windsor Great Park has stars in the heavens a aplenty, but the walls just don’t cut it.
He worked wonders with the cast, all of whom threw themselves into the often frenzied proceedings with abandon. The merriment reaches antic heights in the hamper scene, but flawed timing totally wrecked what could have been a very funny finale.
Musically, the surprise of the evening was that James Levine would have allowed such pedestrian casting. Nanetta, Fenton and Ford were all two sizes too small for the Met, and the amply endowed Angela Meade’s resplendent soprano was not nearly bright enough for Alice, although Meade was so likable and funny as an actress one forgave her.
Maestri was a wonderful Falstaff, singing with a gigantic voice and even larger bearing. He lacks the subtlety to pull off his little ditty about being a page to the Duke of Norfolk, but it was thrilling hearing his robust baritone sail through this glorious music. Stephanie Blythe, also blessed with a voice that matches her girth, was in great form as Dame Quickly. All the secondary characters were terrific.
The beloved Levine is incapable of turning in a lackluster performance, but something was off last night. There were joys and new insights in abundance, particularly the accompaniment to Ford’s Act II solo, but, despite gorgeous orchestral playing, the endeavor felt earthbound.
The audience seemed to have had a fine time.