Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Savour of Falstaff

Met - January 3, 2014

Lei: Tutto nel mondo è burla - that’s how Verdi’s anti-hero Falstaff salutes the public in the composer’s last work: an ode to wine, food, women and earthly pleasures, because “life is nothing more than a joke.” And coming from the father of the most stirring operatic dramas, with heroines and their lovers tragically dying left and right, it’s quite a statement.

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times
Lui: Verdi’s farewell opera is indeed a very Boccaccio-esque romp in the realm of appearances, practical jokes, feints and pranks. The world of the Decameron’s signature beffe and burle. There is even a sort of umbilical cord refrain that repeats throughout the opera linking the Fenton-Nannetta subplot to a kernel of Boccaccian wit. It’s a quote from the seventh story of the second day of Boccaccio’s Decameron: “Bocca baciata non perde ventura, anzi rinnova come fa la luna” (“The mouth that has been kissed does not lose its savor, indeed it renews itself just as the moon does”). The young lovers, apparently avid readers of the medieval Italian author, quote it to each other in their flirty duets, and Nannetta always finishes Fenton’s sentence for him when he starts to utter it. Even the only truly romantic bit of the opera is, thus, a nod to the jesty Boccaccio.

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times
Lei:  Ambrogio Maestri carried the show, not surprisingly since he celebrated his 200th Falstaff performance during this run at the Met. What is truly impressive is that Maestri is only 43, and started performing this role at 31, when Riccardo Muti noticed him in Milan and worked with him on developing a “younger” voice for a role traditionally performed by older singers. Maestri’s acting was superb, with unexpected light and fluid movements and an effortless comic force dotted with a few strokes of tragic awareness. Also, it really makes a difference when someone with his articulation performs Falstaff, really savoring and owning every single word, doing justice to the richness of Boito’s libretto. Maestri was the only singer on stage 100% understandable at any given moment, while some of his colleagues’ Italian diction was not always as clear. 

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Angela Meade confirmed herself as a strong solid singer, who performed Alice Ford with verve and confidence. I found Meade’s acting to have improved, looking a bit more mobile on stage when compared to when I saw her in Ernani. Mezzo Stephanie Blythe was very impressive as Mistress Quickly, her deep dark timbre was so clear and powerful that she dwarfed everybody else, including Maestri. I’ve seen her before as Azucena in Trovatore but this was the first time I was so struck with the strength and fullness of her voice. Lisette Oropesa’s Nannetta was pretty good though at times her lyricism was a tad too frail for my taste. Her duets with Paolo Fanale’s Fenton were pleasant but lacked punch, coming across as more nostalgic than ardent young love. 

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore / Royal Opera House
Lui: The setting is mostly successful in making the material more approachable, moving the action of the first act from a medieval tavern to a 1950s wood paneled hotel, where Falstaff gorges himself on room service. Carts of food litter his chamber. In addition to the symbolism of the environs Falstaff inhabits, the thematic importance of class difference is further conveyed through the contrast between the protagonist’s grandiose old world aristocratic outfits and the mid-century modern Mad Men sorts of costumes that adorn the rest of the cast. Setting a piece like this in the pivotal postwar period, with its explosion of suburban life so vividly represented by Alice Ford’s humongous yellow kitchen in Act II, is a perfect fit for the central tensions of the story. Falstaff is, after all, a decadent and debauched minor aristocrat trying to fit into a petit bourgeois society that is on the verge of supplanting the old order, the values of which he is the lingering embodiment, and that manages to have its way with him. In the final sequence the tables are turned (and quite literally so in Carsen’s choreography of the climactic scene) on the voracious appetites of our omnivore. The man who once held the fork and knife is now under the forks and knives of the bourgeois society that is out to teach him a lesson. He is now on the table being poked and prodded so he knows what it’s like to be on the other side of his careless appetites.

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Lei: While I am all for freshening up productions with modern takes, I cannot stand it when for the sake of modernization things are pushed too much and the action does not match the words that are being sung. This happened in Scene II of Act II, here set in Alice Ford’s kitchen, when the libretto makes multiple references to a paravento (dressing screen) that the ladies set up in a specific way at Alice Ford’s instructions and that serves as hiding place for Falstaff first and for Nannetta and Fenton later. In this production when folks mention the paravento they mean alternately a cupboard and a tablecloth. I recently saw a video of the 2001 La Scala production of Falstaff where a real paravento was used that not only corresponded to the libretto but also worked as a better theatrical prop since it divided the space with a split screen effect that was much better than hiding singers in a cupboard or under a table. Also, I did not fully understand the sense behind the crowd of men, dressed like private detectives, who stormed into Alice Ford’s kitchen and proceeded to throw stuff from all of her cabinets. While it may have been intended as an absurdist comic touch (many in the public laughed), to me it just seemed awkward.

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times
Lui: Perhaps it is meant to be a comment on the prewar social order that is now being undermined by consumerism on a different scale and of a different kind. The shower of suburban consumer goods that pours from the cabinets and cupboards of Alice Ford’s kitchen in the mad manhunt scene is reminiscent of the finale of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film, “Zabriskie Point,” with its surreal clouds of conspicuous consumption raining down from the sky after a desert mansion is destroyed in an presumably imaginary explosion. Carsen’s production of Falstaff seems to level a lighthearted critique of postwar capitalism. The suburban mores of Alice’s brave new world present a petty substitute for Falstaff’s corrupt aristocratic appetites. His love of endless bottles of Xeres, polli, tacchini, fagiani and acciughe finds its kindred spirit in her kitchen full of copious amounts of consumer products.

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

Lei: On a separate note, do we really need to have a real horse chewing hay onstage at the beginning of Act III? I am not sure what bothered me more, its entirely superfluous presence or the public cheering for it. I saw on archive photos that in the London run of this production Ambrogio Maestri actually rode a horse in the park scene. My guess is that the riding may have been such a scary experience for all parties involved that this time they kept the horse on the side just munching hay, while Falstaff drinks mulled wine. In any event, while real livestock may be acceptable in Aida’s triumphal march in the outdoorsy Arena di Verona, dragging drugged beasts on any other operatic stage as some sort of extra realistic touch or comic relief is never a good idea. I think I may still be haunted by the couple of sad big grey dogs used for the Met's Anna Bolena hunting scene in 2011.

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times
Lui: The absurd and unnecessary exchange with the horse is actually one of my favorite scenes in the opera. This is where Falstaff seems to have reached rock bottom. He has been thrown out with the dirty laundry and he’s hanging himself out to dry in what we could call, in the arc of his character development, his deepest darkest cave.

Io, dunque, avrò vissuto tanti anni, audace e destro
Cavaliere, per essere portato in un canestro
E gittato al canale co’pannilini biechi,
Come si fa coi gatti e i catellini ciechi.
Che se non galleggiava per me quest’epa tronfia,
Certo affogavo. Brutta morte. L’acqua mi gonfia.
Mondo reo. Non c’è più virtù. Tutto declina.
Va’, vecchio John, va’, va’per la tua via; cammina
Finché tu muoia. Allor scomparirà la vera
Virilità dal mondo. Che giornataccia nera!*

In this bit, the musicality of the language of Boito’s libretto is phenomenal. His spirits are crushed and the sound of his words are heavy and gloomy. His couplets rhyme on sounds like biechi and ciechitronfia and gonfiavera and nera. Then he takes his fateful first sip of mulled wine, which opens his eyes and his mind to the brighter side of life and the sound of his language follows suit.

Buono. Ber del vin dolce e sbottonarsi al sole,
Dolce cosa! Il buon vino sperde le tetre fole
Dello sconforto, accende l’occhio e il pensier, dal labbro
Sale al cervel e quivi risveglia il picciol fabbro
Dei trilli; un negro grillo che vibra entro l’uom brillo.
Trilla ogni fibra in cor, l’allegro etere al trillo
Guizza e il giocondo globo squilibra una demenza
Trillante! E il trillo invade il mondo!...**

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
His solitary reflection on the pleasure of drink is punctuated by alliterative speech patterns full of internal rhymes on the sounds of words with rolling R’s and double L’s. The rapid succession of
trillo, grillo, brillo, allegro, squlibra, and trillante all roll off the tongue like a birdsong. His newfound happiness is inscribed in the text itself. Now Verdi is famous for his drinking songs and I’ve counted one in virtually every Verdi opera I’ve yet to see: from Libiam nei lieti calici in La Traviata to Ernani’s Evviva, beviam beviam, a libation is never lacking. In Falstaff, Verdi gives us different kind of ode to wine. This time it is melancholic and solitary but uplifting nevertheless.

Lei: This was my first live Falstaff and I had low expectations of enjoying it much due to its unconventional format (no real arias, music often feeling like schizophrenic virtuosism). Three things made me reconsider after seeing the Met’s production: the complexity of the libretto, the highly pleasurable action on stage and Levine’s electrifying conducting. Boito’s language is rich and poetic while at the same time light and funny, with lines such as “L’enorme Falstaff vuole / entrar nel vostro tetto / beccarvi la consorte / sfondar la cassa forte / e sconquassarvi il letto.” (“the enormous Falstaff wants / to enter your house / pinch your wife / break open your coffer / and smash your bed”). Maybe the cast was excited about working with James Levine or Robert Carsen’s direction deserves the credit. No matter the reason, the action on stage was energetic and accurate across the board, bringing to life the score and the libretto as a delightful yet explosive package. James Levine made fireworks out of Verdi’s music, with an intensity and pace that left this Falstaff skeptic out of breath – in a good way.

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

* I, then, having lived so long as a brave and skillful Knight, end up carried in a clothes-basket, tossed
in the river with the stinking wash, like a kitten or a still blind pup. Without this buoyant paunch, I’d surely have drowned. A nasty death. Water swells me! Evil world! There’s no honor left, all goes to pot. Go, old Jack, go thy ways; travel until thou’rt dead. Then true manliness will be gone from the world. What a black day!

** Good. To loosen one’s vest in the sun and drink sweet wine. A sweet thing! Good wine chases away the gloomy thoughts of sorrow, lights up the eye and one’s thoughts; from the lips it rises to the brain, wakening the fairy smith of trills, a black cricket who sings in the reeling brain, waking to trills every fiber of the heart. The joyous air quivers to the trill, a thrilling madness intoxicates the happy globe, the trill quivers through the entire world!

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