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At the Met, poor Falstaff is upstaged by a horse

Our shrewd judge Steve Rubin feels let down by the Met’s new show:

maestri falstaff

photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Robert Carsen’s Met debut was an evocative and beautiful production of EUGENE ONEGIN, which this season was summarily replaced by Fiona Shaw’s drab, conservative interpretation of the Tchaikovsky masterpiece. Now the tables have been turned as Carsen’s new production of FALSTAFF has caused the scrapping of Franco Zeffirelli’s universally adored 50-year-old take on Verdi’s final opera.

Carsen is much too intelligent and interesting a director for this undertaking to be dismissed in the manner Shaw’s was. But his FALSTAFF is a very mixed bag. Most perplexing is why he reset it in post World War II England. The sets don’t look particularly English; the final scene in Act II in fact looks like a Fifties American suburban kitchen.

His design team has a field day with flamboyant and often funny costumes, but why else we are the 20th century eluded me. Carsten always seems to favor walled-in sets and that’s the case here, where the unit sets goes kerflooey in Act III: outside the Garter Inn is nothing but a drab room where the prime attraction is a very hungry live horse munching away and upstaging poor Ambrogio Maestri as a sodden and defeated Sir John. The magical final scene is Windsor Great Park has stars in the heavens a aplenty, but the walls just don’t cut it.

He worked wonders with the cast, all of whom threw themselves into the often frenzied proceedings with abandon. The merriment reaches antic heights in the hamper scene, but flawed timing totally wrecked what could have been a very funny finale.

Musically, the surprise of the evening was that James Levine would have allowed such pedestrian casting. Nanetta, Fenton and Ford were all two sizes too small for the Met, and the amply endowed Angela Meade’s resplendent soprano was not nearly bright enough for Alice, although Meade was so likable and funny as an actress one forgave her.

Maestri was a wonderful Falstaff, singing with a gigantic voice and even larger bearing. He lacks the subtlety to pull off his little ditty about being a page to the Duke of Norfolk, but it was thrilling hearing his robust baritone sail through this glorious music. Stephanie Blythe, also blessed with a voice that matches her girth, was in great form as Dame Quickly. All the secondary characters were terrific.

The beloved Levine is incapable of turning in a lackluster performance, but something was off last night. There were joys and new insights in abundance, particularly the accompaniment to Ford’s Act II solo, but, despite gorgeous orchestral playing, the endeavor felt earthbound.

The audience seemed to have had a fine time.

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Comments

  1. After attending the dress rehearsal in London I wrote the following to Mr Carsen to give him the opportunity to make changes. None were made before the Covent Garden first night – I would be interested to know if any of the points were addressed at the Met.

    Dear Mr Carsen,

    …..

    Overall – and I do not intend this as condescending – I was enthralled by all aspects of the entire production, but I was disappointed by number of points mostly in what I will call the “dining room” scene. Despite the extraordinarily detailed authenticity of the sets (which also goes for the spectacular fifties kitchen set – bravo, bravo, archibravo!) and the costumes, I was surprised by the very unauthentic behaviour of many of the participants. Here are the examples I can remember (the Mistress Quickly ones are from the “gentleman’s club” set) :-

    1. The waiter would never have shown to a customer a bottle of red wine which had already been opened – true in good restaurants today as it ever was. Nor would the waiters wear pre-tied clip-on bowties with wing collars!!! They might have worn such ties with normal collars, but it is a faux pas for anyone – whether a waiter or not – to wear such a tie with a wing collar where their laziness as well as lack of awareness would be so obvious! In any event, it is easy to spot a pre-tied bowtie whatever the collar – the knot is always too tight and the appearance is always too symmetrical!

    2. The “new necklace” couple were preposterous. The man drained his glass just as the waiter picked up the bottle of Dom Perignon and started to top up his companion’s glass. First, a gentleman (or lady for that matters) never drains a wine glass completely – it is just vulgar. Secondly, neither would have picked up their glass to leave more room for the topping up. Even worse, was the presentation of the new necklace. In the society you are depicting – whether upper or middle class – the opening of gifts in public was just not done. Again, it was considered vulgar to display expensive gifts. The actual replacement of the necklace by the new gift was an equal breach of the etiquette of its day. At the very least, a “gentleman” would have risen and attached the necklace himself, which would have meant we would not have had the ridiculous sight of watching her fit the (presumably unfamiliar) clasp in front of her, then swinging the necklace round 180 degrees. Oh, the inelegance!

    3. The “ladies who lunched” might well have split the bill between themselves, but that would never have been done in public with the actual handing over of notes across the restaurant table. The placing of slices of melon with the skin in contact with cut flesh is a silly culinary faux pas in any era!

    4. The business with Pistol feigning politeness by picking up a dropped napkin, but then stealing the lady’s handbag – good for laughs – also does not work as a lady simply does not ever put her handbag on the floor (I assume that is where it was – it all happened so quickly!).

    5. Mistress Quickly would have a page of her own if I had the time. What a pity you removed a lot of the tired pomposity, buffoonery and vulgarity usually associated with Sir John (“He’s not just some pompous, blown up fool” – from your comments on the Covent Garden website) and threw it at Mistress Quickly’s more than ample bosom, not to mention derrière. Apart from her generally vile and completely cartoon-like public behaviour, she would never (a) have adjusted her make-up in public nor (b) walked out smoking: a lady, however recently arrivée in her upward mobility, would never walk about smoking a cigarette, the only exceptions being at a reception where by its nature all the guests would have been standing or at home. As for her ham-fisted buttering of a chunk of her bread roll before biting a piece off!!! Well, perhaps you really were in her case (maybe even in the case of the “necklace” couple, although that really would have been subtle!) trying to show someone who actually did not know how to behave! The etiquette – now as then in polite society – is to break off a piece of bread the size of a mouthful, butter that from a piece of butter taken from your own side plate (not directly from butter dish to bread) and put it in your mouth!

    I cannot believe that these are all intended examples of deliberate theatrical “irony”, i.e. that you and your team knew the right thing but deliberately put in the wrong thing. It is a pity your team did not have among them – or did not seek to consult – someone with a detailed knowledge of the United Kingdom’s public etiquette of the fifties, not all of which has disappeared. Such a pity, given the obvious love, affection and insight shown to the rest of the production’s details.

    Finally, some random points.

    (a) I was surprised to see the fishing rod in the last scene but, having checked up, it is possible in Windsor Great Park with a permit, but I was partly rightly to be surprised as we are currently in the close season where fishing in the park is not permitted!

    (b) Two fashion points: no real lady would have put a big fat gold brooch on her mink coat (although a pair of jewellery fur clips to join the ends of a fur stole was acceptable) and Ford – who seemed in your production to be obviously a fully cultivated and cultured person – would never have walked around with a silk scarf showing the maker’s label! If – a big if! – there had been such a label sewn on when the scarf was purchased, it would have been removed before the scarf was worn. In those days, clothes labels were never shown

    • Robert Carsen probably read your letter, as I’m sure we all did, with mild amusement and disbelief, shook his head and threw it in the bin.
      I dare say there aren’t many people who wouldn’t have done the same thing.
      Jeez.

      • Such a pity you and others seem to have had a sense-of-humour by-pass operation! The point of my letter was that a production team of great renown spent such a great deal of time and money pretending to have created something authentic.

        I don’t care at all that opera producers and designers these days don’t have the knowledge to create something fully authentic: after all music theatre is nearly always a great and often spectacularly enjoyable leap into the imagination. I just get annoyed when they pretend that they have and are praised by the even more ignorant (audience and critics alike) who think that they have. I was moved to write the letter because I was equally surprised and amused at the stream of inaccuracies masquerading as “echt” that unfolded during the performance!

  2. Steve Rubin wrote:
    The audience seemed to have had a fine time.

    They invariably do; they don’t know any better.

    Falstaff is problematic and, seeing the cast list, I’m not surprised it didn’t work properly. It’s a work which provokes respect more for the fact Verdi was very old when he wrote this lively œuvre than for the fact it’s good theatre (I still think Richard Strauss should have composed this opera). It’s incredibly difficult to bring off and I think the best we can hope for is the one which plays out in our minds with our own ideal cast.

    That’s just my two penn’orth.

    • One penn’orth. It “provokes respect” for its brilliant music!

    • Daniel Farber says:

      The Met Opera audience is generally a very discerning one; can tell good productions from poor ones; excellent singers from the merely good. Mr. McGuiver’s comment about the audience is the height of snobbery. His comment about Verdi’s final opera speaks–loudly and ignorantly–for itself. The Met’s 1992 production on YouTube was very well brought off.

      • If we have to go back over twenty years to find a good production of this work it doesn’t speak particularly well of its theatrical suitability.

        • Daniel Farber says:

          I cannot understand the logic of your comment. That the Met’s production served the work well for 20 years has no bearing on the work’s “theatrical suitability”. Schenk’s Ring was replaced recently by the LePage, also after about 20 years: do you really believe the Ring is also lacking in “dramatic suitability”? Perhaps you can enlighten me and other readers.

          • I know I’m in a tiny minority concerning Falstaff, but there you go. LePage’s Ring is as vapid as it’s possible to be but there have been superb productions of the Ring. I’ve never seen a Falstaff that works as well as a good production of Wagner’s masterpiece.

  3. Genevieve's Castle Room says:

    Theodore wrote:

    QUOTE: “Falstaff is a work which provokes respect more for the fact Verdi was very old when he wrote this lively œuvre than for the fact it’s good theatre”

    How can any opera lover merely ‘respect’ what is indisputably Verdi’s most addictive and finest work?!

    QUOTE: “I still think Richard Strauss should have composed this opera”

    Oh, you really are musically clueless and lacking in delicacy of perception.

  4. “The fact that the lady wore her brooch 2 inches too low and 1.25 inches too far to the left prevented me from enjoying your staging. I am traumatized for life. ”

    Are you people actually reading what you write before you click submit? You really think that these details will matter beyond the 15th row? There are battles that are both worth picking and the level of snobbery displayed in some comments is astounding.

  5. ‘The Met audience is descerning’ ! ?Then why do they insist on applauding before the music finishes and ruining the final seconds of virtually every opera and act that ends quietly.

  6. In reality, all of the characters would be at least 400 years old, and yet they were all performed by singers less than 100 years old. A disgrace.

  7. Performances are for audiences not just for Mr. Rubin. “The audience seemed to have had a fine time.” This seems to be a case of “everybody is wrong except me”

  8. I , myself, can never get over the fact that Verdi’s Falstaff is so disastrously unfunny. Is there brilliant writing in it? Of course. Forward thinking, a piece showing Verdi’s mastery? Sure. But simply…not…funny. And yes, I’ve seen enough productions to have a good sample pool. Schicchi is funny. Nozze di Figaro is funny. Falstaff is a bore.

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