Franco Zeffirelli’s lavishly realistic staging of Verdi’s Falstaff arrived at the Met 49 years ago. Even with a kitschy finale in fairyland, it capitalised on the success of excess, especially when Geraint Evans ennobled the title role. Now that production has been replaced by a revisionist extravaganza concocted by Robert Carsen. In the past he gave us a brilliantly minimised Yevgeny Onegin (now sadly retired) and a boldly theatrical Mefistofele. Falstaff, alas, is another matter.
Carsen’s quasi-evocation of Shakespeare via Boito, shared with four international houses including Covent Garden, moves the action slickly, also sickly, to 1950s London. With ubiquitous panel walls and postwar chic decorations designed by Paul Steinberg, the warm human comedy has become a cool, meticulously choreographed cartoon. Forget humour enhanced with pathos.
James Levine enforces affectionate energy in the pit, seemingly oblivious to the mechanical clowning above him. Ambrogio Maestri, ever hearty, projects towering bravado and rare baritonal fervour in the title role, even when modelling saggy underwear or dressy plus-fours. Significantly, his Falstaff bulldozes the delicacy of “Quand’ero paggio” while he devours a roast chicken. The great “Mondo ladro” monologue serves as an irksome visual duet for fat knight and hungry horse (an equine distraction otherwise reduced since the Royal Opera House premiere).
Maestri finds a worthy counterpart in the amply endowed Quickly of Stephanie Blythe, whose “Reverenza” greetings boom extraordinarily deep and dark. The others are vaguely competent. Angela Meade’s silly-matron Alice Ford flutters bravely. As her husband, Franco Vassallo blusters urgently, even when he impersonates a smug cowboy (ask not why). Lisette Oropesa floats lovely, if inconsistent, soft tones as Nannetta, too loudly seconded by Paolo Fanale as Fenton. Jennifer Johnson Cano sings gently as a blonde-bombshell Meg Page. Everyone sports hideous antlers in the stylised town square that masquerades, awkwardly, as Windsor Forest.
Incidental intelligence: the performance was dedicated to Regina Resnik (1922-2013), who sang the lofty Alice Ford early in her career and then, in Zeffirelli’s Falstaff, triumphed as the lowly Dame Quickly. She was unique.