After years of writing tragedies, Verdi in his old age turned to the majestic girth of Shakespeare’s debauched knight, Sir John Falstaff, for inspiration in what would be his final opera. Conductor James Levine, who returns to the Met Opera after two years of illness, believes it is the greatest comic opera of all – and the most complicated. Certainly, the ten solo parts weave a magic that seems so spontaneous it belies the formidable musical challenge that the final act in particular contains.
Based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, it tells of Falstaff’s attempts to seduce not one but two ladies of the town who plot how to bring him to his senses. Add to this a jealous husband, two young lovers desperate to be together, a father determined to marry his daughter off to an old man and some knavish servants, and you have delectable comedy of manners.
In something of a numbers game, this is an opera Levine has already conducted 56 times, and it’s the first new production of the opera at the Met for over 50 years – a co-production with Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House. It’s also a very busy production: there’s a live horse quietly munching straw in one scene, a steaming roasted turkey that gets eaten in another, to say nothing of the gargantuan platters of food and drink that populate most scenes. Falstaff tries to seduce his prey in an ice-cream coloured Betty Crocker kitchen, with the ladies who teach him a lesson dressed in the nipped waists of the Fifties. The design cleverly weaves the image of the cuckold into olde worlde interiors featuring horned stags, so that by the end when the knight receives his comeuppance from what he believes to be the faeries, we’ve been seeing the horns all along.
Ambrogio Maestri is a grand Falstaff – unsurprisingly he has sung the role over 200 times. The zest for life that redeems the character of this old rogue is captured in full throttle by Maestri right up to the end, which can be a rather unsettling chastisement, but here retains the production’s airy touch. Alongside him is an ensemble cast that capture all the energy and physicality of this comedy that is a celebration of life itself.