Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Met's Falstaff: Life is Good

Reflection on the live-in-HD broadcast from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera yesterday of Falstaff by Verdi, Boito and, of course, Shakespeare.  The production starred Ambroglio Maestri in the title role. Robert Carsen directed.

Director Robert Carsen has updated the look of Falstaff to the world of I Love Lucy, comfy and droll from the get-go.  It seems so natural for those Merry Wives to meet for a two-martini luncheon at a wood-paneled club in Windsor, fussing with their purses, oohing over a fancy dessert, and dishing on that fat knight, Falstaff.  The finale of Act II is a blissfully chaotic deconstruction of history's largest kitchen -- pastel cabinets, red-check table cloth, brand-name detergents filling a space the width of a basketball court.   

A cursory look for "Verdi's Falstaff" on the internet yields these basics:  it's Verdi's final opera, his only comedy, written over the four years approaching his 80th, drawing on material from three of Shakespeare's plays.  Its longest aria is only about 90 seconds long, so it disappointed those who expect "a tune you can hum," but everyone else seems to agree that it's Verdi's benediction, celebrating love, sensual pleasures, and reconciliation.

I tried to notice the music while the cheery characters' antics kept distracting me.  Each scene began with a different fast-paced ostinato in the bass, making me think of Sir John himself.   My favorite musical moment, aside from the finale (see below), followed Sir John's cup of wine at the top of Act Three.  He has climbed exhausted from the Thames river, waked in a stable in his muddy long johns, and sung a despairing little aria about the cruelty of life.  But when Falstaff sings how wine spreads throughout the mind to restore the senses, notes in the orchestra bubble up, and spread outwards to more and more instruments.

As the director said in an interview between acts, the finale gets us out of indoors for magical moments in nature.   There's elaborate hoodoo about a huntsman's spirit, fairies, witches, and such; but the magic is in the music and stagecraft.   Director Carsen brings in "spirits" on wagons covered in white cloth.  Once Falstaff understands that he has been hoodwinked and humiliated yet again, the young lovers married, the jealous husband reconciled to wife and daughter, then musical magic begins:  Falstaff sings that life is a joke, and others take up his words and melody a cappella at first, building with orchestra into a magnificent celebration.  

As the fugue reaches its climax, we see that the white platforms now constitute a giant banquet table, laden with food.  Chandeliers drop into view, and the whole company sets to a feast as the curtains close.

I had tears streaming down my face at the end.  Sigh.  It's been a hard few weeks, and I was glad to be washed in the waves of good feeling from this wedding of music and story.

Adding to the general sense of community and warmth, the Met treated us to backstage interviews.  Maestri's wife translated for an interview between Renee Fleming and the gigantic baritone where he demonstrated his own cooking skills in that oversized stage kitchen.  Such interviews as these, with stars and with stage crew, draw us into that Met community, if only through satellite technology.

No comments: