As the curtain opened for Act III of Robert Carsen’s new production of Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera, a horse was revealed to be casually munching hay across the stage from Sir John Falstaff, portrayed by an exuberant Ambrogio Maestri. The horse’s obliviousness to the thousands of onlookers as he grazed was a perfect personification of the title character’s insouciance. Falstaff was a recurring figure in Shakespeare’s comedies, including The Merry Wives of Windsor, on which this opera – Verdi’s last of 26 – was based. He chatters and chuckles his way through the story, never concerning himself with much more than the acquisition of a drink. He is jolly, arrogant, and fat. But the silent animal, one of Mr Carsen’s clever touches, nearly stole the show.

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff, with horse © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff, with horse
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The acting and singing was generally excellent, with occasional inconsistencies, and the opening night of this production in New York, after its run at the Royal Opera House and La Scala, chortled along without any snags – or surprises. Mr Carsen has situated the action during the time of Elizabeth II rather than Elizabeth I, and the result is visually immaculate and well-directed. Paul Steinberg’s sets, particularly the pastel kitchen wonderland of Act II, were clever and sumptuous without distracting from the words or music. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes and the lighting by Mr Carsen and Peter Van Praet were equally apt. The scenes were colorful, lively, and engaging: in sum, the production left me with little to complain about (although on the other hand, there wasn’t anything outrageous enough to blow me away).

The rollicking plot of the opera bounds from disguises and duplicity to a hilarious hide-and-seek sequence resulting in Falstaff hiding in a laundry hamper and then getting tossed from a window into the Thames. (It is at this point that he encounters his equine counterpart.) Every opportunity for humor was taken, and the audience roared with laughter at all the appropriate moments, even giggling like guilty co-conspirators as Falstaff peeked out of his hamper. The final scene features further disguises (mostly antlers) and a double wedding, culminating in a wedding dinner hosted by Falstaff himself. The joke was turned on us, the audience, during the final fugue: “all the world’s a jest”. This “twist ending” – which I won’t spoil – was a cheesy and somewhat predictable touch, but it was an appropriate way to end the production, which managed to feel both modern and safe. Mr Carsen seems to have managed not to alienate the conservative Met-goers, while keeping the more adventurous of us wide awake.

Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page, Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff, Stephanie Blythe as Mrs Quickly © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page, Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff, Stephanie Blythe as Mrs Quickly
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
This might have been the first time Mr Carsen’s Falstaff graced this particular opera house, but conductor James Levine has had a practiced go at the work, having conducted it 55 times previously at the Met. I found the orchestral pace and texture even more exciting than the parade of 1950s suburban merriment. Mr Levine kept the tone brisk and bubbly; the instruments flitted skilfully from one section to another as the characters skipped across the stage. Indeed, like Falstaff, I found myself attempting to gobble up as much as I could: the amusing story, the resourceful directing, and the brilliant music. In addition to the strong instrumental performing, the singing was, on the whole, delightful.

Ambrogio Maestri’s Falstaff was bouncy and suitably boisterous, leading a supporting cast that was usually lovely, if at times a bit loud. The other male leads kept up, with Fenton portrayed by a sprightly Paolo Fanale and Franco Vassallo as an uproarious Ford. The four female leads were even more exquisite. An energetic Angela Meade brought warmth and craft to the role of Alice Ford as she bounded through her immaculate stage-sized kitchen. Jennifer Johnson Cano scintillated as Meg Page, and Lisette Oropesa’s charming, headband-wearing Nannetta was a joy to watch. But Mistress Quickly, sung by the formidable Stephanie Blythe, was the true star of the evening. She has a commanding and palpable presence as an actress and singer, and her comic effect was outmatched even by the horse. The musicality elevated an otherwise enjoyable evening to the point of memorability. The horse and the headbands were humorous, but the conducting and singing are what leaves a lasting impression.

****1