Lear-Like Bryn Terfel Warms a Heartless Falstaff

That Verdi was the most Shakespearean of composers was no accident. Speaking of his passionate devotion to the Bard in 1850, he said that he “had it in mind to set … all the principal plays of the great dramatist.” The subject that haunted him most was one he never found the courage to tackle- King Lear -though he may have drafted a sketch for four pages of music for a Re Lear in 1865. How gratified he would have been to realize that he did succeed in giving operatic life to the mad old king, at least as personified by Bryn Terfel, who is giving a great Lear-like performance, against considerable odds, in the title role in the Met’s current production of Verdi’s Falstaff .

The composer’s last masterpiece and the third of his three Shakespeare operas, Falstaff is also Verdi’s only comedy. He was not renowned for a rollicking sense of humor, and after receiving a libretto by Arrigo Boito based on one of Shakespeare’s most perishable farces, The Merry Wives of Windsor , he set about adapting a subject that would seem to have been alien to someone who had written so feelingly about revenge: the humiliation of the lovable old Elizabethan scoundrel Sir John Falstaff by a gaggle of silly, suburban matrons.

With astonishing resourcefulness for a man approaching 80, he gilded Boito’s relentless buffoonery with his most richly mercurial score, producing an opera that is as easy to admire for its musical inventiveness as it is to resist for its emotional heartlessness. At least on opening night, the Met’s production, which is a refurbishment of the Franco Zeffirelli staging at the old Met in 1964, seemed determined to bring out all the heartlessness it could.

Visually, the Zeffirelli production, whether it’s in the half-timbered interior of the Garter Inn or Ford’s sunlit garden, remains serviceably picturesque. But Falstaff , with its torrential flow of dialogue, declamations and ensembles, requires a director’s deft touch in myriad ways if it is not to come across as a strenuous exercise in tomfoolery. Mr. Zeffirelli chose to stay in Italy and leave the hands-on work to assistants-and it showed.

Falstaff’s thieving sidekicks, Bardolph (Jean-Paul Fouchécourt) and Pistol (Raymond Aceto), were stock ruffians. The lovers, Nannetta (Camilla Tilling in a gorgeous Met debut) and Fenton (a sweet but underpowered Gergory Turay), cut good-looking figures but seemed weirdly disconnected from each other. Dwayne Croft’s Ford was another of this fine baritone’s woodenly grandiloquent performances; and the three merry wives (Marina Mescheriakova’s vocally insecure Alice Ford, Stephanie Blythe’s richly eloquent Mrs. Quickly, and Susanne Mentzer’s wackily unfocused Meg Page) seemed so competitive in their mugging and mincing that a friend was moved to remark that they should be called the hysterical wives of Windsor.

Musically, the greatest glory of Falstaff is its orchestra writing, which assumes a brilliant theatrical life of its own. In the booklet for an excellent new recording of the opera on Deutsche Grammophon, the conductor, Claudio Abbado, writes that “the orchestra itself seem to be laughing.” Under the direction of James Levine, the Met’s orchestra more often seemed to be grimacing; every interjection by the woodwinds or the cellos was like something out of Shakespeare for Dummies , and what should have sparkled thundered. Mr. Levine’s sense of comic pacing is sometimes elephantine-his Meistersinger last fall was painfully slow-and on opening night this fleetest of operas moved with a remorseless tread. (Most infuriatingly, the Met, with its customary lack of concern for one’s bedtime, stretched what should have been a delightfully swift evening-the opera itself runs a little less than two hours-into an interminable one that lasted nearly three and a half hours, thanks to two endless intermissions and protracted pauses for scene changes in Acts II and III. Are ordinary operagoers being made to suffer for the indulgence of the patrons lingering over mediocre, excessively priced food in the Grand Tier Restaurant?)

Fortunately, there was Mr. Terfel. A few days earlier, I had heard the strapping Welsh bass-baritone in a recital at Carnegie Hall, where I was struck anew not only by his familiar rugby-player-next-door charm, but by his voracious musical intelligence. Beautifully accompanied by his longtime pianist Malcolm Martineau, Mr. Terfel strode from Schubert to Vaughan Williams, Duparc, Copland and the young American composer Jake Heggie (the American premiere of a rather wan cycle of Vachel Lindsay poems entitled The Moon Is a Mirror ) with an easy intensity appropriate to each composer and a range of vocal colors that could turn from terror to tenderness in a single breath. Hearing Mr. Terfel as nothing but himself is terrific entertainment; hearing him as the Shakespearean rogue knight is great theater.

Verdi and Boito shrewdly chose to incorporate the more resonant Falstaff of Henry V into their adaptation, and no performer in my memory traces the character’s journey from the titanic hedonism of Act I to the self-delusions of Act II to the vulnerability of Act III more powerfully than Mr. Terfel. Not even his outsize tummy prevents him from prowling the stage like a ferociously territorial fox. (Watch that foot dart forward in the first scene when he trips Pistol into a pratfall.) As the prospect of winning the heart of Alice Ford dawns on him, Mr. Terfel manages to radiate both a palpable glow and, more subtly, the sense that he is having doubts about whether he’s really up to a roll in the hay. His most telling stroke comes at the beginning of Act III. Having been unceremoniously dumped into the Thames in a basket of dirty linen, he is seen climbing laboriously out of the orchestra pit. As Mr. Terfel hauled his prodigious bulk onto the stage, you felt that he was spending every last ounce of himself. When he sang of the unfathomable wound to his pride, he seemed as small as a whipped child. But as he realized that he was back outside the good old Garter, with its ready supply of wine, you could feel the life force seeping back into him, until he was once again Jack Falstaff-still unconscionably outrageous, but now, like Lear, a little wiser.