Halftime at the Met: James Levine Falters With Falstaff, but Ambrogio Maestri Is Larger Than Life

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 'La Traviata' bodes interestingly for his 'Prince Igor'

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff. (Photo by Catherine Ashmore)

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff. (Photo by Catherine Ashmore)

When James Levine returned to the Met in September to conduct Così fan tutte, after two seasons sidelined by illness and injuries, critics and fans alike scrutinized the first performance, seeing in it a bellwether for the remainder of his career. And that performance was more than promising. The supple tempos and iridescent sonorities Mr. Levine coaxed from the pit, the immaculate balances of the vocal ensembles and his sure sense of the architecture of each of the two long acts were all indications of a great conductor in top form.

How, then, to explain the perplexing performance last Friday night of Falstaff, Mr. Levine’s first new production since his return? Nothing went wrong exactly, but nothing went quite right either. Conducting this final masterpiece of Verdi—a Levine specialty at the Met since 1972, his second season with the company—the maestro was off his game.

The problem seems to lie with certain differences in musical style between Così and Falstaff.  Even the longer numbers in the Mozart opera, the finales and ensembles, tend to divide into distinct segments so that a changeover of tempo—from andante to allegro, for example—is relatively easy to accomplish: one section stops, everyone catches their breath, and the next section begins.

In the century that divided the premieres of these two operas, the style of transition between sections changed radically.  By the time of Falstaff, operas incorporated many more changes of tempo between phrases and even within a single phrase. Conducting became a skill of feeling these subtle gradations of musical velocity and, even more importantly, clearly communicating them via a stream of infinitesimal “nudges” to a large orchestra, soloists and a chorus.

This level of micro control is put to the test in Falstaff.  For this sparkling comedy based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Verdi wrote a quicksilver score that, when conducted precisely, feels improvisational. But when the conducting is off even by a hair, the music seems to lurch and halt like a car whose driver is riding the brakes.

And that’s how Mr. Levine’s Falstaff felt: We reached our destination, but the ride was a little rough. This problem was most acute in the tricky second scene of Act 1, in which almost the entire cast is onstage. Where the chattering of the gossiping wives should dovetail smoothly into the angry scheming of Falstaff’s enemies, there was just the tiniest hesitation, a fraction of a second, like the microscopic pause an MP3 player sometimes inserts between tracks.

It seems unlikely the issue was lack of rehearsal time, because Mr. Levine is the company’s music director and it’s his handpicked assistants who do the scheduling. Neither was the issue the cast, which was generally excellent. No, it seems like there was something slightly off in either Mr. Levine’s sense of rhythm or his ability to communicate his interpretation to his performers.

It’s not a fatal error; this was a perfectly respectable Falstaff.  It just wasn’t the superb Falstaff the occasion called for. That’s too bad, because the cast was generally terrific, particularly Angela Meade as the leading “wife,” Alice Ford. Her full lyric soprano darted and swooped, with trills and high C’s neatly in place.

Co-conspirators in her scheme to teach the randy old knight Falstaff some manners were soprano Lisette Oropesa, floating endless silvery high notes as daughter Nannetta, and Jennifer Johnson Cano, deploying a crisp mezzo in precise rhythm. Stealing every scene, though, was mezzo Stephanie Blythe as the earthy Dame Quickly, with a massive roar of a mezzo that sounded halfway between a cannon shot and a belly laugh.

The casting of the men was more uneven, with baritone Franco Vassallo (Ford) and debuting tenor Paolo Fanale (Fenton) sounding distant and anonymous. But they threw themselves enthusiastically into the farcical moments of Robert Carsen’s staging, along with the hilarious Keith Jameson and Christian Van Horn as Falstaff’s rebellious sidekicks.

Unlike in many other productions of this opera, the farce here was more condiment than main dish. Mr. Carsen shifted the Elizabethan comedy into the reign of the other Queen Elizabeth, i.e., in post World War II Britain. Falstaff inhabited a luxe hotel room cluttered with room service carts, and the wives did their scheming while sipping martinis in a chic tearoom. For the last scene, the handsome unit set of paneled walls parted to suggest Windsor Forest, with the “supernatural” creatures gliding onstage on wheeled banquet tables amid carbon dioxide fog.

But the star of the show was of course Falstaff himself, Ambrogio Maestri, his huge, warm baritone soaring generously into the auditorium. The jolly giant never clowned but rather played the lecherous knight with exaggerated dignity and self-importance, making the character not only funny but moving as well. When he launched the finale fugue on the text “tutto nel mondo è burla” (“everything in the world is a joke”), you could tell this was a man who was in on the gag.

This Falstaff marks the halfway point in the Met’s schedule of six new productions this season, a potential highlight of which is Borodin’s epic Prince Igor, which will be staged by one of opera’s more controversial figures, Dmitri Tcherniakov, in February. Just last weekend, the busy director took a bow at the Dec. 7 opening night of Milan’s La Scala after his uneven but disturbing take on Verdi’s La Traviata. Thanks to Emerging Pictures’ “Opera in Cinema” film series, New York opera fans could see the entire performance on a 24-hour delay on Sunday at BIG Cinemas Manhattan Theater on the Upper East Side.

Superficially, Mr. Tcherniakov’s approach seemed identical to Mr. Carsen’s: shifting the “period” action of the opera to a late-20th-century setting. Where La Traviata went further was in its hardheaded questioning of the basic sentimentality of its “Lady of the Camellias” love story. Mr. Tcherniakov had the lovers Violetta and Alfredo gradually grow wary and defensive of betrayal to the point that even in their last-minute reconciliation scene, in the opera’s last act, they remained distant, bitter and hopeless.

As Violetta, soprano Diana Damrau created a portrait of an aging, overwrought sex worker, transforming her first-act aria “Ah fors’ e lui,” from the usual sigh of romantic longing into a disillusioned shrug. In the last act, when the libretto has the heroine in the last stages of tuberculosis, this Violetta exaggerated her symptoms in order to cadge pain medication from a suspicious doctor.

In an even braver performance, tenor Piotr Beczala played up the callow side of her lover Alfredo. Once Violetta betrayed him, he turned utterly cynical, incapable of trust even when he unwillingly returned to his lover’s deathbed. In a macabre dramatic twist, Alfredo stayed at arm’s length from Violetta during their reunion, impatiently glancing as his watch during one of her more extravagant outbursts of despair.

With so many novel details in a staging, it’s perhaps inevitable that some of them got muddled, as when Ms. Damrau missed her entrance to the second act “gambling” scene. (When she finally appeared, all the lights suddenly blacked out, as if her ill-fitting kelly-green chiffon muumuu had blown La Scala’s fuses.)  But on the finer level of character interaction, Mr. Tcherniakov’s work was so precise as to provide a sort of MRI of the drama.

Precision wasn’t the long suit of conductor Daniele Gatti, but he more than compensated with emotional grandeur, a great sweeping performance of glittering allegros climaxing in an unusually slow finale in which the “funeral march” accompaniment throbbed like uncontrollable sobs.

The film presentation included a long series of curtain calls in which the Milanese public cheered Ms. Damrau and Mr. Gatti, then hurled catcalls at a tensely smiling Mr. Tcherniakov. That disapproval was predictable but, I think, unjust: His Traviata may have been in some ways a mess, but it was a magnificent one.