A production that is more than worthy of the opera's larger-than-life titular character
Falstaff is a highly entertaining, clever and endearing opera, with Verdi's music sparkling just as much as the comedy. While it is not quite among his top 5 best(personal tastes), Verdi's final opera does deserve to be known for much more than that. This Met production was most enjoyable, not as good as Plishka's, Taddei's(both productions), Bacquier's, Terfel's and Maestri's earlier productions but much better than Raimondi's and Van Dam's. The HD is sharp and most beautiful to look at, the sound is fine and the camera work doesn't distract from the stage business at all. Renee Fleming hosts warmly and keeps us interested, though maybe the intermission could have been trimmed in length a bit.
Visually, the production is good, not amazing but not horrid either. It was a wise move to keep things plain and simple and it works here, though really only the oak panellings of Falstaff's lodgings, the colourful kitchen set and the highly atmospheric Windsor Great Park setting stand out. The use of fog in the latter set the scene to great effect. The lighting is pleasing and makes the sets more interesting, particularly striking was the use of shadows getting bigger in the Windsor Great Park scene, really adds to the atmosphere. The costumes stylistically are variable but are very attractive also. Robert Carsen's stage direction is very well done on the most part, apart from the wedding banquet tableaux at the end some of the staging for the final act wasn't quite as inventive as that for the other two acts, the large antlers were rather tacky and unneeded. With Carsen though the comedy does come alive, especially with Falstaff and Mistress Quickly, and the drama is equally involving. He adopts the less is more approach while keeping things busy too, while also succeeding in making the narrative coherent.
Musically, this Falstaff is close to outstanding, with the only real let-down being some early ensembles that could have been tighter and more together, as if some performers weren't so sure of the tempo. The chorus give strong work throughout, both in their acting and singing, and the orchestra- especially in the strings, both galloping and shimmering- are equally spirited. It is wonderful to see James Levine again after a long absence, and his leadership is alert, attentive and stylish. Even when in a wheelchair and in ill health, he has lost none of the energy and vigour that always did make him an exciting conductor. Ambrogio Maestri, imposing and practically towering over everybody in physique and height, is the finest Falstaff of the past 15 years. He brings this large arrogant character to life, with his acting vivid, his comic timing hilarious and completely natural, embracing Falstaff's physicality with surprising elegance and with a voice that is big in size and mellow in tone with lovely tone colours and characterful vocal acting.
The other standout is Stephanie Blythe, she is very conniving and a riot in doing so, her comic timing matching Maestri exactly. She doesn't disappoint vocally either, her bottom register is rich and thrilling to listen to(can still remember her volcanic low G when she sang Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera last year). Franco Vassallo captures Ford's jealousy and up-tightness very well and does so with integrity and not being too dull. His voice is good though with a tendency to bluster too much, which actually to me is not uncommon with baritones in the role. Angela Meade's Alice is much improved over her promising but inconsistent Elvira in the Ernani from 2 seasons ago, her phrasing and style has much more confidence here and she sings beautifully. She looks as though she's really enjoying herself, she has a good sense of comedy and does so subtly. Lisette Oropesa is a perfectly charming Nannetta, conveying the longing and awkwardness of a teenager-in-love very convincingly. Her voice is also just lovely, her floating high notes heavenly and the envy of me. She is well-matched by Paolo Fanale as lover Fenton, he makes his Met debut here and it's a promising one. He matches Oropesa in charm and is not too stiff, and he sings strongly and fluidly if perhaps lacking in nuances in a dynamics sense.
Jennifer Johnson Cano may seem dull to some compared to other members of the cast, but she still shines in her own way. Her Meg Page is still nuanced and elegant, and she has a sizable and appealing mezzo-soprano voice. Carlo Bosi manages to make Dr Caius irritable and sometimes creepy(like with Nannetta at the start of Act 3) yet gives him a timid side, he constantly is made fun of in this production like the character and Bosi is hardly oblivious to it. Christian Van Horn and Keith Jameson are similarly excellent, very contrasted in height and physique but equally funny and with great chemistry. Their begging for forgiveness in Act 2 was an effective touch. All in all, a most enjoyable production and more than worthy of Falstaff himself. 8/10 Bethany Cox
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