The Met’s new production of Verdi’s Falstaff, by Robert Carsen, places the action in the 1950s or maybe very early 1960s. Falstaff’s inn is a hotel or club, with high, bare but glossy paneled walls (no windows) that enclose the Fat Knight’s room (crowded with dirty room service trolleys), the restaurant of the hotel, where the wives gather to have tea and compare their matching love letters, the smoking room where Falstaff receives Mistress Quickly and “Fontana” and, after Falstaff’s plunge from the window of the Ford house, a stable, complete with a real horse munching away at his real food, where Falstaff recovers from his unexpected immersion. The forest in Act III is the same panels set at angles so they funnel toward an open dark space at the back. All the “fairies” wear black cloaks and deer horns; the deer head/horns motif is repeated frequently throughout the opera.
But in terms of visuals, the most eye catching part was the interior of the Ford house in Act II. It’s a perfect toy 1950s kitchen, with bright yellow cupboards and a big picture window. It looks somehow stretched out or elongated, just enough that it’s halfway to parody even before the action begins. I guess it has to be big enough for the
500 30 guys in gray suits who pour into the room when Ford orders a search for Falstaff who he knows is in the house. This is one of those gags – like Falstaff and “Fontana” (Ford disguised by way of Texas, complete with cowboy hat and calfhide briefcase) attempting to leave the lounge at the inn at the same time and getting stuck in the door – that is kind of funny in theory but in practice not actually rip-snortingly amusing. But anyway, the kitchen. Alice plays lute music not on a lute, but on a cute little teal radio; Nannetta comes running in in pedal-pushers to rummage through the fridge for ice-cream after she learns from her father that she is to marry Dr. Caius; the basket Falstaff hides in is a big upholstered teal laundry hamper. The twentieth centuruy setting doesn’t always track with the material of the opera. For instance, Nannetta (Lisette Oropesa, who sounded pretty in a kind of warbly way) seems about sixteen – the idea that in 1950-whatsit her dad is going to force her to marry some old guy seems a bit of a stretch. But it works well enough. And the bit where Nannetta and Fenton sneak beers from the fridge together is sort of sweet.
Some of the people in this production I have encountered before. I remembered Jennifer Johnson Cano (Meg Page) from a recital I heard last winter. I enjoyed her voice very much then, but since in Falstaff you hear the women mainly in ensembles, I didn’t come away with a detailed impression of her in this role. Ambrogio Maestri made a jolly, personable Falstaff, but I think Bryn Terfel on DVD is still just a little too fresh in my mind.
Oh, and Stephanie Blythe as Mistress Quickly? More of this. Please. She’s funny, full of personality, she has a big solid interesting voice, and she sounds wonderful.
Finally, one point about acoustics. Last time I was at the Met I sat in the back row center of the Family Circle, the Met’s topmost rear balcony, and I felt like the sound balance was tipped heavily towards the orchestra. This time I sat in the front row of the Family Circle and I experienced no such sound imbalance. It may be a matter of Strauss versus Verdi; it may be some fiddly acoustic property of the sets, or who knows what – or it may be a property of the hall itself. Unfortunately, I find that I am sitting in the way back again for La Cenerentola in May (stupid me for putting off buying the tickets) but hey – the way back is better than nothing, I guess.