Robert Carsen’s Falstaff, which premiered in 2013 and returned to the Met on March 12, is simply delightful. The opera is stylish, thought-provoking, and very, very funny–particularly in its use of background actors and the chorus, who populate the restaurant, clubs, kitchens and hotel rooms that comprise Carsen’s 1950s-era setting. While they do give the singing characters plenty of energy to play with, the chorus and supernumeraries are often comedic engines themselves. In Act II, the growing number of fedora-ed men who appear in Ford’s kitchen to find Sir John is proportional to the growing number of chuckles from the audience. These give way into raucous peals of laughter as the men roll over one another in slow-motion toward Sir John’s suspected hiding place, hoping to catch him in flagrante.
When done well, slapstick is high art indeed. Carsen’s production succeeds by harnessing the humor within opera tropes, in the same way that Arrigo Boito’s libretto does, by lovingly lampooning operatic tendencies. It is, for example, inherently silly to sing about doing something for ten minutes before doing it. Ensembles in which everyone sings at the same time are funny, too, because no one can understand them, and Boito’s genius is having the characters point that out.
This latest Falstaff cast is, for the most part, fantastic and funny–each in their own way. They look great, and they sound marvelous in no small part due to the vivacious conducting of Daniele Rustioni, who has a fine comic ear for tempi and whose ever-dancing flop of hair feels like its own character by the end of the show.
The “Merry Wives” (Alice Ford, Meg Page and Mistress Quickly, assisted by soon-to-be Merry Wife, Nanetta Ford) are presented in the opera as ladies who lunch. Seen almost always with cocktail in hand, they laugh at themselves and at everyone else, and they never get jealous of one another–a pleasantly positive depiction of female friendship worth aspiring to.
As mother-daughter duo Alice and Nanetta, Ailyn Pérez and Hera Hyesang Park have a Gilmore Girls-esque dynamic; Pérez projects the ultimate cool mom while Park, as ingenue, is vastly more charming than Rory Gilmore. Park has a brilliant soprano–sparkling, clear and deceptively powerful. Pérez is somewhat muted in the first act, and not quite as comedic, but opens up with a more expansive timbre and obvious engagement as the show progresses.
Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Jason Cano is a warm and lovely Meg Page with a lush and generous sound. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, as Mistress Quickly, simply crackles with exuberant mischief and a gloriously hefty contralto. We all know what a pleasure it is to see good actresses play bad ones, but her performance goes one step further: she is a good actress playing a bad actress who discovers that acting (read: scheming) is her true passion. She’s an excellent physical comedienne, as well; her curtseys alone are worthy of a YouTube supercut.
The opera’s men are equally fun and nearly as charming. Christopher Maltman combines an easy comic timing and emotional outbursts in both Ford and as Mr. Fontana, dressed in a ludicrous cowboy outfit, complete with mullet. Maltman’s sterling baritone expresses both Ford’s jealousy and his eventual generosity beautifully, and in his scenes as Mr. Fontana, we get a worthy bookend of the good-actor-playing-bad-actor to complement Lamieux’s Mistress Quickly. Tenor Bogdan Volkov, whose youthful looks are perfect for Fenton, has less to do comedically because his role is young lover, but his opening aria in Act III showcases his light, brassy sound and competent phrasing.
As Bardolfo and Pistola, Sir John’s hapless and bumbling servants, Chauncey Packer and Richard Bernstein are further fountains of humor. Packer, especially, makes the most of his small role, embodying a finely drawn and uniformly hilarious Bardolfo–especially when he appears just slightly out of dramatic focus.
But even if it is Mistress Quickly’s world and we are all just living in it, the night belongs to Sir John himself. Baritone Michael Volle is an excellent Falstaff, displaying a dazzling variety of vocal and dramatic shades, from slapstick to soliloquy. Throughout, his voice is supple, present, solid and warm—a beautiful example of how a singer’s individual timbre works in a role to add nuance without belaboring the issue. This Sir John has an undercurrent of real humanity and even a sense of deep self-acceptance somewhere under his anachronistic clothes and pompous manner, and when he briefly lapses into despair at the top of the third act, I longed to encourage him to put on his top hat and seek a better day.
Comedy is so often about the triumph of the young over the old. Nanetta and Fenton’s plot is most familiar to comic opera—we know they should marry, simply because they are young, beautiful and amiable, and we know Ford is wrong to pair his daughter with Dr. Caius, because he is none of those things. But the Merry Wives (and Falstaff himself ) complicate this particular comic triumph. It’s the older women who run this world, not with force but with playful glee. Falstaff, in insisting on his relevance as a source of entertainment at the end, also triumphs. He remains irrepressible because, after all, life would be far less fun and funny without him in it. Everyone wins.
In Falstaff, Verdi and Boito not only took Shakespeare into a new genre but actually improved upon his characterizations. Sir John is pompous, lazy, occasionally violent and always self-deluded, but in their telling, there’s a spark of good nature in the character and a pitiable (instead of loathsome) fallibility. We are all a little pompous and deluded at times: best to laugh at ourselves whenever possible, have another glass of wine and make the best of it.
Falstaff continues at the Metropolitan Opera through April 1.