Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: James Levine
Producer/Director: Robert Carsen
Sir John Falstaff: Nicola Alaimo
Alice Ford: Angela Meade
Mistress Quickly: Stephanie Blythe
Meg Page: Jennifer Johnson Cano
Ford: Franco Vassalo
Nannetta: Lisette Oropesa
Fenton: Paolo Fanale
Bardolfo: Keith Jameson
Pistola: Christian van Horn
Although I am a huge Verdi fan, I was not particularly overjoyed to see that Falstaff would be part of the current Met season, mostly because I did not have any really fond memories of a production by the Marinsky Theater I attended in Washington, DC several years ago. On the other hand, the Italian master's swan song, composed when he was well into his seventies, has an excellent reputation and is appropriately light fare for the holiday season. Inspired mostly by Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as Henry IV, Verdi's opera Falstaff has no problem standing on its own right as a rather sophisticated comedy about a not very sophisticated bon vivant, brightened up by a relentlessly inventive score.
Moreover, the cast of this production had quite a few enticing names, starting with the formidable Stephanie Blythe, and our beloved James Levine would be back on the podium. So when my friend Dawn came up with an offer that I could not refuse, namely pretty good orchestra seats, which got even better after we had moved a couple more down towards the center, we figured that we had every reason to give the bigger than life character a brand new shot yesterday afternoon.
As soon as a beaming James Levine took the podium and received a thunderous rock-star-worthy ovation, we knew that we were in the perfect hands. His visceral connection to the outstanding Met orchestra and his deep knowledge of the score could not but promise a unique musical experience, if nothing else. As it turned out, everything else fell miraculously into place as well.
Although our performance did not feature the much lauded official lead of this production, Ambrogio Maestri, other Italian tenor Nicola Alaimo did a fabulous job with the role. He effortlessly conveyed the obvious voraciousness as well as the not so obvious refinement of the seemingly big fat slob while singing with powerful conviction and graceful stylishness. His Falstaff was often shameless when it came to money, food and women, but he also had surprisingly philosophical and truly endearing moments too. Maybe it was simply the genuine Italian warmth he brought to the part, but he was a constant joy to watch and listen to.
Nicola Alaimo may have been a mesmerizing Falstaff, but he had fierce competition every time the merry wives showed up. As the big man's main object of desire, soprano Angela Meade was a smart and attractive Alice Ford, terrifically served by her lush and agile voice.
Falstaff's other object of desire and Alice's partner in teaching him a lesson, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano sang with plenty of assertiveness and ease the role of Meg Page.
The mezzo-soprano everybody loves to love, Stephanie Blythe, was in her finest form as Mistress Quickly, generously displaying her well-known extraordinary voice and a talent for comedy that may be not as well-known but is just as remarkable. Her pretend plotting with Flastaff in the Scene 2 of Act I, in particular, was a marvel of flawless dual signing and impeccable comic timing.
Soprano Lisette Oropesa was a lovely Nannetta, and made an adorable couple with tenor Paolo Fanale. Together they repeatedly injected a breath of fresh air every time they were onstage, always high and above the complicated shenanigans brought on by the other characters.
Baritone Franco Vassalo was clearly having a lot of fun as jealous Ford, who first appeared as a sleazy Texan oilman, complete with gold lamé suit, cobalt blue shirt, shades and hat. He received the full seal of approval from my Texas born-and-bred seatmate, and I really have nothing to add to that.
An unexpected guest star enlivened the beginning of the Scene 1 of Act II as a horse placidly poked its head through an opening in the wall and quickly got busy munching on some food, completely uninterested in Falstaff lamenting his sorry fate nearby.
The cast for sure benefited from a wonderfully imaginative production, starting with the ingenious idea of placing the story in 1950s England. Beside a few unavoidable oddities, such as mentions of "knights" and 'swordsmen", the whole concept worked extremely well and allowed from some really striking décors, such as a gasp-inducing bright yellow kitchen. The place would actually be subjected to frantic action during the Scene 2 of Act II, including clothing flying out of the laundry basket and dishes flying out of cabinets. The various sets were all consistently eye-catching and had the commendable ability to turn from a fancy dining room into a mysterious starry night without an itch.
The action could sometimes feel slightly overwhelming with a lot happening in various corners of the stage, but some clever directing, such as the whole scene in the restaurant freezing, except for the couple of young lovers completely engrossed in each other, made the plot easier to follow by focusing the attention while creating some startling tableaux. The briskness of the pace was well-sustained and had the distinct advantage of keeping things light and lively, in true comedic fashion.
The Met does not usually hold back with it comes to costumes, and sure enough, the outfits for men and women were luxurious, colorful, with the occasional funky little touch such as Mistress Quickly's boldly purple matching hat and gloves. But the most vivid display of fashion wear took place at the very end, when the chorus concluded the performance in a large assortment of incredible black and red gowns and suits.
Although it was surprisingly not sprinkled with memorable arias, Verdi's score contained many brilliant pieces bristling with musical ideas, always right in tune with the action going on, whether it was the frenzy of the kitchen being turned upside down, the lecturing tone of the soliloquy about honor, or the sweet serenade ignited by young romantic love. The ensembles were tightly constructed and richly lyrical, and the Met's mighty chorus got its moment in the spotlight during the last scene, which it handled with its usual poise. In the midst of it all, maestro Levine made the music swoon and sparkle in all its glory.
He definitely seemed happy to be there, and so were we.