December 15, 2013

Falstaff at the Met: tears of joy

A lot of opera blogs consist of reviews of performances. Your Humble Blogger doesn't do that for the basic reason that 1) he's employed by an opera company and shouldn't take up criticism of other companies as a regular "thing", and 2) if you think he can afford that many tickets, both airplane and theater, ...well, you don't know Your Humble Blogger - that's for dang sure!

But I'm writing this about an hour after leaving a local cineplex where I took in the matinee HD transmission of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Falstaff. I thought I'd talk about it, which (I suppose) is another way of saying I'll review it. Except that reviews are written by critics, and I'm not a critic. Nor do I harbor any latent desire to become one. Whatever.

To place my remarks in context, you have to understand that Virginia Opera, the folks who pay me to educate other folks about the art form of opera, staged their company premiere of Falstaff as the opening production of the currrent season. This means that I spent virtually every day from late August through October lecturing about this masterpiece of Verdi's old age. Multiple opera appreciation classes for nine regional universities; radio broadcasts; lectures and talks for civic groups, retirement communities, and so on - not to mention the pre-curtain talks before each performance. Add to that the research and preparation for several weeks before all this activity began, and you know what you get?

Burnout, that's what you get. Even though Falstaff is my absolute favorite work of art of all time (which you'll recall if you're a regular reader), I had kind of been dreading teaching it because when you show the video clips and play the music and discuss it every. single. day., you end up getting pretty satiated. When the last performance was over and the set was struck for the final time, I'd had a bellyful of Sir John and his merry friends. I hated feeling that way about an opera that means so much to me, but that's one consequence of the type of teaching schedule I maintain.

But Falstaff is filled with fairy dust and magic and a strange elixir of life-affirmation, my buddies.

As I sat in my seat, popcorn and Diet Coke at my side, I confess that throughout the afternoon, from beginning to end, my face was a waterfall of salty tears streaming down my cheeks and making my nose run. I was grateful no one could see what a spectacle I was making of myself there in the darkness of the theater. I'm not what you'd call a weeper at the movies, normally. The recent film version of Les Miserables, for example, found me dry-eyed and stony-faced. But at Falstaff the water-works were on for three-plus hours straight.

This was a gratifying production for anyone who knows and loves this opera. I would say the more you know the music, libretto and characters, the more there was to appreciate.

I tend to get a little grouchy and curmudgeonly about the modern trend - no, mania - for updating every single production of standard operas. It has become such a commonplace, even generic approach around the world that, far from expressing originality as it did years ago when Peter Sellers first staged Mozart in a diner, the practice strikes me as tediously UN-original.

But Robert Carsen's Betty Crockeresque 1950's production didn't bother me. I enjoyed it. (See? NOT curmudgeonly! NOT curmudgeonly!) Particularly effective was the setting of Act 1, scene 2 in a restaurant where both the Merry Wives (plus one of the most winsome Nannetas ever in Lisette Oropeso) appeared as "the ladies who lunch" while their menfolk gathered on the other side of the room. Let's face it: housewives don't gather in gardens as often as they did in days of yore. The restaurant ambience was an a propos "translation" of how, in the 20th century, such women related to one another and expressed their social status as upper-middle class women. I also appreciated the way Carsen had all the ladies constantly filling wine glasses; these women are really into their chardonnay! It added a lot to the scene of Falstaff's rendezvous with Alice in Act 2, actually helping explain how such respectable matrons could get so carried away with a zany scheme and uninhibited carryings-on.

At first I was a little disconcerted by the opening scene: a big king-size bed in a tavern, or gentlemen's club, or whatever it was? Surrounded by a dozen dining tables and chairs, restaurant-style? But I got over it. I guess Sir John Falstaff has his own private dining room where he chillaxes after hours; fair enough.

All critics agree that never has a baritone been more "to the manner born" to play the title role than Ambrogio Maestri. He is a giant man - big-boned and corpulent, with a cavernous Italianate sound, oversized personality, and a repertoir of facial expressions Jim Carrey would envy. He also has an innate sweetness about him that's good for the role; it fairly radiates out into the audience. He wasn't completely warmed up in the opening scene, where his top range came in two flavors: a bellowing forte or a crooned falsetto. As the afternoon wore on he managed some actual piano vocalizing above the staff.

But in general, the key for any Falstaff is the ability to produce a hundred different vocal colors. From Gobbi (my fave) to Evans to Bacquier, the great ones share this asset. Falstaff must growl, croon, snarl, trumpet, roar, wheedle, whisper, moan and 92 other affects, all done with the voice. I could not fault Maestri on this score, meaning I disagreed with the critic of the New York Times, who sniffed that there was not enough word-play in the "Honor Monologue". Yes, he was critiquing a different performance, but as Maestri has sung the role 202 times, I suspect there's not much variance from night to night. And it was wonderful.

But I reserve top honors and greatest admiration for the real star of this show: (no, not the horse. More on him below.) Stephanie Blythe, who OWNED the character of Mistress Quickly in a way that would have warmed Verdi's heart. What a comedienne! Singing with the ideal vocal weight, adding impeccable comic timing, wonderful facial expressions and charisma out the wazoo, she seduced the audience the way Sir John had hoped to seduce Alice. As long as I live, I will never forget the sight of her capering around Dr. Caius and his "mystery bride" in the final scene, tossing flower petals like the crazed Flower Girl From Hell. I guffawed. And it wasn't too much or over the top - it was just right. What stagecraft!

Other moments that caused me to shed those never-ending tears:

  • Okay, the horse. Falstaff, grousing about his woes in a stable as Act 3 began, lectured a horse about the rottenness of humanity while the horse, quite oblivious, worked on a bundle of hay. Fabulous visual image.
  • Ford, paying his call on Falstaff in Act 2, scene 1, entering in disguise as - a Texas oilman! String tie, boots, cowboy shirt - the whole nine yards. His gift of several cases of wine and a briefcase full of C-notes added to the image. And Franco Vassallo delivered the "Dream Monologue" with such power and psychotic rage that it became an object lesson in realizing the true comedy behind Ford's jealousy. He drained the piece of every drop of theatricality Verdi injected into it.
  • A wonderful, psychologically perfect touch in Act 2, scene 2: Nanetta binging on ice cream out of the carton as she tearfully reveals her father's plan to marry her off to Caius. (Note to singers: yes, she really ate it, but it was vegan ice cream. So - all good.)
  • The conceit of having that scene take place in Alice's kitchen, a highly yellow 1950's kitchen that would have turned Donna Reed and June Cleaver pea-green with envy, was just fine and provided opportunities for a lot of visual humor. Alice turned on a kitchen radio for the lute music ushering in Sir John; he deftly switched it off when he finished singing along to it. And the oven, OMG. I guess Alice was the first on her block to have a microwave-convection oven, since the raw turkey that went in was smoking and ready to eat like 12 minutes later. Falstaff carved it himself, placing a miniscule sliver of white meat on Alice's plate while hacking off a huge portion of drumstick and wing for himself. Perfect!
  • Lisette Oropeso sang Nanetta's aria as perfectly as music can be performed. Style, voice type, feminine charm; all combined for a perfect realization of Verdi's intent. I almost forgot the odd decision to have her rolled in on a dining table with white tablecloth. Huh? 
  • When Ford's posse was "turning the house upside down" in their search for the fat knight, we were treated to another sight gag earning chuckles: men opening the many tall kitchen cupboards, chaotically tossing spice bottles, cake mixes, and HUNDREDS of similar items in every direction. "Maybe he's hiding behind this box of lime Jell-O!!"
  • Angela Meade's Alice was everything one could want. Vocally, her performnce was a model of accuracy and musicality. This was a case of a performer relishing her first opportunity to try her hand at comedy.
The glory of Falstaff, of course, lies more in the many ensembles than the solo musical numbers. Several critics mentioned raggedness in the opening-night performance, a surprising result for a show led by the veteran James Levine, who knows this opera as well as anyone now living. I would say that the ensemble ending Act 1, with ladies stage-right and men stage-left, probably the most difficult ensemble musically, did seem labored and at risk of going off the rails at any moment, though "raggedness" was avoided.

However, Signor Maestri was to blame for some ensemble problems in the final scene. When the townsfolk gathered to torment him (with every cast member wearing their own set of "Black Huntsman" antlers in this version!), the intricately-textured chorus of "pizzicci, stuzzicci" and "ruzzolo, ruzzolo" was on the shaky side rhythmically. This is because Falstaff's terrified shrieks of "Ai! Ai! Ai! Ai!", which must happen in rhythm and in tempo, DRAGGED. It's likely that Maestri didn't have a clear view of the conductor; whatever the cause, he slowed down the tempo and caused the men's chorus to enter a fraction late. The resulting insecurity kept me on the edge of my seat.

I doubt if the horse cared...

I'll close with bouquets for Levine. A lot, ... a LOT - of what I admire about Falstaff consists of the wit of the orchestration, which (whether or not the listener realizes it or not) creates a great deal of the humor. The "grumpy cat" sulky muttering of the low brass commiserating with Falstaff's outbursts of "Mondo rubaldo, reo mondo!" is one of hundreds of examples. Levine's ear for these details; his ability to make every miracle of orchestration stand out with ideal articulation, not to mention his faultless tempi and dramatic pacing, were at a level equal to that of Toscanini or Karajan  for sheer mastery.

This was one of the great opera-going experiences of my life. I wish I'd been at Lincoln Center to see it live, but am grateful for the afternoon of intense pleasure the HD presentation afforded. I wept with happiness, certainly for the performance but mostly for the sheer perfection of Verdi's achievement. Seeing this production made me proud to be employed in the opera field. And - big miracle here - it washed away three months of burnout. It allowed my passion for the best of all operas to be re-born yet again, some 42 years after I first heard it and fell in love with it for good.

1 comment:

  1. Now you've made me want to see it. Love Falstaff and last saw it when Paul Plishka was Sir John. Wonderful article! I've been entertained and educated all at once, over morning coffee!