I haven’t seen much opera lately–Broadway has been keeping me hopping–but when the Met announced that Bryn Terfel, whom I admire greatly, would be singing the title role in Falstaff, my favorite opera, I knew I had to be there. The only question was who to bring along. Having recently subjected the beauteous Maccers to a third-rate play, it struck me that she might be a worthy seatmate, and she agreed to join me on Saturday for dinner and Verdi.
On Thursday afternoon the Met press office left a message on my voice mail in New York. I was holed up at an undisclosed location, so I didn’t find out until late that night that Terfel, whose longstanding back problems have made him a chronic canceller, was bailing out of Saturday’s performance, the last of the run. Sighing deeply, I left a message for Maccers assuring her that she was more than welcome to do the same. No way, she replied the next day, and sure enough, she arrived at the Teachout Museum on Saturday night, no more prepared than I for the comedy of errors that was about to ensue.
I should have known we were headed for harm’s way when we showed up at the restaurant and found that its doors were locked (a water main had broken). Unfazed by this ill omen, we improvised a tasty dinner next door, then hustled down to the Met, where things got off to a surprisingly decent start. Louis Otey, who replaced Terfel, is no Falstaff, but he’s a good singer and a good sport, and he threw himself into the impossible task of covering for one of opera’s most electrifying performers. It helped that Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, the funniest character tenor around (he plays the ugly frog in Mark Morris’ staging of Rameau’s Platée), was up to his usual tricks as Bardolfo. Moreover, James Levine, who for the past few seasons has been very much an in-and-out runner, rose to the occasion, conducting in a positive and involving manner from the first downbeat on.
The curtain fell on the first scene, and we waited…and waited. “There’s trouble in paradise,” I whispered to Maccers, and sure enough, a nervous-looking gentleman in a suit materialized seconds later and informed the audience that Fouchecourt had slipped, fallen, and hurt himself during the scene change, and would be replaced by his cover singer. “I think the thing to do is take the first intermission now,” the spokesman said. No sooner did the house lights come up then Maccers and I scooted to the bar for champagne, wondering what the next disaster would be.
What happened instead was a not-so-minor miracle, made possible in part by the galvanizing presence of a first-rank artist. I can’t say enough good things about Patricia Racette, who was singing Alice Ford on Saturday, so I’ll simply repeat here what I wrote about her in the New York Daily News a few years ago on a similar occasion:
Patricia Racette was faced with the unenviable task of replacing the much-loved Renée Fleming as Violetta, the doomed courtesan, in Franco Zeffirelli’s expensive new production of La Traviata, which opened Monday at the Metropolitan Opera House. A lesser singer might have clutched under the pressure. Instead, Racette swung for the fences—and smashed the ball out of the park.
Racette is no airheaded coloratura canary, but an outstandingly gifted singing actress who uses her bright, vibrant voice as an instrument of high drama. She caught the hectic desperation just below the surface of the forced gaiety of “Sempre libera,” and moved boldly from the black despair of “Addio del passato” to the heart-tearing false hope of the death scene. The wild cheering at evening’s end was fully deserved: rarely has an American soprano made so much of so great an opportunity…
Racette was every bit as good on Saturday, and her determination to prevail set her colleagues on fire. Instead of staggering around looking stricken, the cast, Otey very much included, had a ball. It was Maccers’ first Falstaff, and she went home happy. It must have been, oh, my twentieth, and so did I.
Was it a great performance, or merely a great occasion? Falstaff, after all, is no knockabout farce but one of Western art’s most searching commentaries on the vanity of human wishes, no less so because it says what it has to say with a smile. What makes Verdi’s Falstaff immortal is the comic finality with which his remaining delusions of potency are dispelled—and the nobleman’s grace with which he accepts his reversal of fortune. Verdi, who was seventy-nine years old when he completed Falstaff, understood such matters in his bones, which is why it is the most Shakespearean of all operas.
Sir John may be a fool to chase after Alice and Meg, but if he is, so are we all, and there is nothing even slightly absurd about the piercing moment when he assures Alice that he was not always the fat, tumescent rake who stands before her:
When I was page to the Duke of Norfolk,
I was slender, a mirage,
light and fair, gentle, gentle.
That was my verdant April season,
the joyous Maytime of my life.
Then I was so lean, so lithe, so slender,
you could have slipped me through a ring.
Arrigo Boito’s original Italian words are deliciously light-footed—Quand’ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk/ero sottile, sotille, sotille—and the miniature aria Verdi spins out of them, barely a half-minute long, is no less delicious in its scampery, self-mocking grace. To hear it is to peel away the layers of bluster and behold the humanity of a buffoon who, long after his “verdant April” has turned to chilly October, still craves the comforting sweetness of young love. A little later we see him humiliated, and though he deserves it a hundred times over, we feel a tug of sympathy, knowing there is more to him than mere roguery. Is there a more poignant moment in opera than when he stands before the mocking crowd and joins bravely in their laughter?
Rare is the Falstaff, be it in the opera house or the theater, who understands this (Orson Welles did, with good reason). One could hardly have expected Louis Otey to improvise at the last minute so complex an interpretation, and he didn’t: instead, he played Sir John for laughs all the way, and got them. Nor is the Met’s ancient Falstaff, performed in the crumbling shell of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1964 production, likely to inspire such interpretative subtleties in those forced to work within its constricting limits.
Fortunately, Verdi’s quicksilver music tells us everything we really need to know, and when the whole cast comes downstage at the very end and joins Sir John in a rousing fugue whose first line is All the world’s a joke, it’s hard not to suspect that you’re hearing more or less what Robert Browning had in mind when he spoke of “the C Major of this life,” the key in which young lovers are wed, a husband and wife reconciled, an aging blowhard humbled and forgiven, and the world made whole again.
Of course I cried. Comedy does that to you. So does life.