Six years ago the Met debuted its new, Robert Carsen-conceived production of Verdi’s Falstaff, replacing Franco Zeffirelli’s 40-year old, time-and-place (the Elizabethan era) faithful production. It is a delicious, witty and telling updating and has just been revived at the Met.

Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) with Richard Bernstein (Pistol) and Keith Jameson (Bardolph) © Karen Almond | Met Opera
Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) with Richard Bernstein (Pistol) and Keith Jameson (Bardolph)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

Placing the opera in England in the 1950s, Carsen captures the crumbling of the old ways, the graying of the Ruling Class. Sir John holds on to his aristocratic privilege while living in a huge but dirty room at the Garter Inn; he’s in his unmade bed and he looks like an unmade bed. His clothes are dirty, his long underwear poorly fitting and, well, filthy. He seems to take his obesity as a sign of prominence. When we meet the fashionably dressed women they are having a ladies lunch in the Garter’s elegant dining room, sipping white wine. Nanetta is enamored of Fenton, a waiter.

Falstaff holds court and receives Quickly and Ford in the Garter’s Reading Room in Act 2 Scene 1, and the second scene of Act 2 is set in the picture-perfect, brashly modern kitchen we all recall from advertisements on TV in the 1950s and 60s, with Alice Ford the very picture of a modern housewife. The orange checked wallpaper and yellow cabinets and walls are wonderfully gaudy, a Formica fiesta. Falstaff arrives in outlandish jodhpurs; his lute accompaniment is provided by a portable radio. Here and throughout, Paul Steinberg’s sets and Carsen's direction, perfectly pinpoint the opera’s wit and situation.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Mistress Quickly) and Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) © Karen Almond | Met Opera
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Mistress Quickly) and Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

We find Falstaff outside a stable (with a real horse) at the start of Act 3 after his humiliating dunking in the Thames, and the Woods for the final scene appear magically. Many comic operas are funny; Falstaff is both funny and witty, and Carsen and Steinberg, abetted by Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes are always commenting on the action. The production is a gem, with fast, realistic action.

Ambrogio Maestri, a giant of a man, repeats his Falstaff of six years ago. Never overblown enough to be unbelievable, the seriousness with which Falstaff takes himself and conversely, the effect he has on others, is a wonderful example of self-delusion. The voice booms but never exaggerates – a great performance – and what acting: his gestures and facial expressions all seem spontaneous.

The deliciously merry wives, headed by Ailyn Pérez's pert Alice Ford, are proud of their mischievous behavior and they should be. Acting as only old friends with a mission can, Alice's cunning and Nannetta's eagerness to be part of the crowd, Meg's good humor and Mistess Quickly's urbane shrewdness are a delight. Pérez's sparkle and accuracy, Golda Schultz's light, pure tone (ravishing in her last act arietta in the Mirella Freni mold), Jennifer Johnson Cano's solid, articulate mezzo and Marie-Nicole Lemieux' dark-hued, endlessly jovial Quickly were as fine individually as they were in ensemble.

Ailyn Pérez (Alice) and Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) © Karen Almond | Met Opera
Ailyn Pérez (Alice) and Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

The men held up their end as well: Tony Stevenson's richly drawn, dimwitted Dr Caius and the co-conspiring duo of Bardolfo (Keith Jameson) and Pistola (Richard Bernstein) – as disloyal to Falstaff as possible – were colorful, whether sneaking around or jumping on Falstaff's bed. The bright-voiced Ford of Juan Jésus Rodriguez, smooth when plotting, wild with jealousy in his big aria, was pivotal. Francesco Demuro's Fenton was the very picture of ardent lyricism.

Richard Farnes led a sensibly paced performance, just fast enough for the cast to keep up with the hectic moments and not faster, lyrical parts slow enough to savor, and the Met Orchestra had a grand time with this most sophisticated score, the woodwinds bight and chipper, the brass growling, strings silky or aggressive as needed. A most welcome revival.

*****