The worldwide Metropolitan Opera’s HD Broadcast of “Falstaff” has double header potential for Chicagoans who go to see Chicago Shakespeare’s current run of “The Merry Wives of Windsor”.
“Falstaff” is Verdi’s late in life take on this Shakespearean comedy.
The coincidence doesn’t stop there. Both the Metropolitan Opera and Chicago Shakespeare chose to put this story in an updated setting. They are only off by a decade or so. Chicago Shakespeare puts the play in 1940’s England. The Met’s “Falstaff” is in a 50’s setting overflowing with populux kitchenware props and pillbox hat with white glove fashions galore.
For Metropolitan Opera lovers this was particularly special for marking James Levine’s triumphal return to the stage after an incapacitating illness. Giuseppe Verdi, who composed “Falstaff” as he was approaching the start of his 9th decade, would no doubt be pleased to hear Maestro Levine’s musical direction again at work on this, his last opera.
The story line lends itself to farce with typical Shakespearean turns of events.
We first meet a debauched fat Falstaff (Ambrosio Maestri) in bed at an Inn as he wines and dines to excess, taking time only to complain about his two manservants (Bardolfo, Keith Jameson and Pistola, Christian Van Horn). An irate Dr. Cajus (Carlo Bosi) enters to complain that he has been robbed by Falstaff’s men and taken advantage of while drunk. Falstaff “shines him on”, as they used to say in hippie time California, leaving Cajus duly enraged.
Now that we know just what a lowlife Falstaff is he takes it one step further by writing identical love letters to two well-to-do women, with whom he seeks liaisons with for financial gain.
His two manservants, Bardolfo and Pistola, refuse to deliver the letters saying it would dishonor them, and Falstaff quickly dispatches a page to send them instead, then firing the two men from his service.
The scene switches to a restaurant where the two women who received Falstaff’s love letters, Mistress Ford (Angela Meade) and Mistress Page (Jennifer Johnson Cano), are there with Mistress Quickly (Stephanie Blythe) and Alice Ford’s daughter Nannetta (Lisette Oropesa). Two things happen. The women upon discovering Falstaff’s scheme decide to get revenge and all four women sing of their intent with wonderful musical lines that end in cackling laughter.
Indeed it sounds like a very fun hen party and as we learned during the intermission, the performers were quite conscious to gesticulate as they sing to elicit 50’s era womanliness a la signals they picked up by watching the movie “The Women” as suggested by the production’s director Robert Carsen. Meanwhile, Nannetta connects with a lowly waiter Fenton (Paolo Fanale) and vows her love, albeit forbidden.
At another table in the restaurant a different plot is brewing. Falstaff’s dismissed servants, Bardolfo and Pistola, are meeting with Mr. Ford (Franco Vassallo) , of whom they seek employment, who is dining with Dr. Cajus, whom he favors for his daughter’s hand.
Falstaff’s former servants tell Ford of Falstaff’s plan to seduce his wife, causing Ford to explode in jealousy. Now a second plot is born where Ford decides to visit Falstaff in disguise and wheedle out details of his plan.
The plots unfold as Mistress Quickly meets up with Falstaff at an Inn to tell him that Mistress Page awaits him during the hour that her husband is gone.
Then Master Ford arrives in a hilariously funny costume of a turquoise string tie and belt buckled cowboy costume that elicits images of a Hollywood star strolling into a Palm Springs 50’s era mansion. He tells Falstaff he’ll pay him handsomely if he seduces Mistress Page thereby paving the way for further indiscretions with him.
When Falstaff tells Ford that he already has a rendezvous with Ford’s wife, Ford explodes in jealousy.
The scene changes to Ford’s house, where Falstaff begins his seduction of Mrs. Ford, delighting us with his deluded self-image of being an irresistible Romeo.
Mistress Page interrupts, as planned, to announce in jest that Ford is approaching.
All hell breaks loose when Mistress Quickly appears in a panic to inform Alice that a jealous Ford really is on his way. The women stuff oversized Falstaff into a closet.
Ford and the ensemble of townspeople then ransack the 15 cabinets overstuffed with 50’s era food and household items and throw the clothing in the laundry basket hither and yon. In the confusion of this farce, Nannetta and Fenton have sneaked off to smooch below a kitchen table, which Mr. Ford hears and thinks he has caught his wife in her tryst with Falstaff. As the young lovers are discovered, the women get Falstaff into the laundry basket.
The scene ends with great hilarity as Falstaff is dumped with the dirty laundry into the River Thames.
We next meet up with a dirty, disheveled and dejected post-Thames River dumped Falstaff in an Inn stable where he laments on his fate with a comely horse chomping on hay. Yet again the vain Falstaff falls for another phase of the revenge plot when Mistress Quickly comes to arrange a rendezvous between him and Mistress Page in the haunted forest.
This time the plot is to taunt Falstaff by pretending to be fairies and spirits.
Soon after Falstaff meets up with Mistress Ford they begin the town's pokes and taunts of the spooked Falstaff.
It’s only when he recognizes one of his former manservants that he sees he is being made the fool. Meanwhile Master Ford’s plan to marry off his daughter is foiled by counterplotting by the star-crossed lovers and Mistress Ford, but not until the single and very beautiful long aria is sung by Nannetta as she twirls in a diaphanous bridal veil over a 50’s style wedding gown.
The finale is a wonderful fugue with the entire ensemble supporting the 10 characters of the cast all singing of how we need to laugh at ourselves and “he who laughs last, laughs best.”
While it’s often the case that one leaves a Met HD Broadcast walking on air, it’s especially easy to feel uplifted and transported by an opera where nobody dies and where you laugh your way through many a scene. One wonders if elder Verdi also anticipated this joy when he was approached by the opera’s librettist Arrigo Boito to write the score.
The Metropolitan Opera continued its recent broadcasts’ practice of showing the tightly orchestrated scenery moves during all set changes. Host Renee Fleming interviewed the prop master who shared details of the massive scope of what they handle, even going as far as having vegan cuisine for certain performers. We also learned that Ambrosio Maestri has played this title role more than 200 times worldwide, and with his wife by his side as translator shared one of the many Italian recipes he was brought up on in his family’s restaurant business, much to sampling Renee Fleming’s delight. Yes, it’s great to hear and see live opera but the Metropolitan certainly gives us many an extra in the movies that make it special in its own right.
There is an encore performance of "Falstaff "on Wednesday, December 18 at 6:30 in theaters throughout Chicago.
Upcoming HD Broadcast operas this season include:
Rusalka FEB 8
Prince Igor MAR 1
Werther MAR 15
La Bohème APRIL 5
Così fan tutte APRIL 26
La Cenerentola MAY 10
For information on the nearest theater to you and other performance details visit the Metropolitan Opera’s HD Broadcast web pages.
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Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera