As a final act, when he was in his late seventies, Verdi wrote an opera unlike any he had written: Falstaff. To many, it seemed more a Mozart opera than a Verdi opera. It was practically a chamber opera, with fleetness, intricacy, slyness—a mystifying masterpiece at the end of a long, prolific career.
Falstaff was revived at the Metropolitan Opera on Sunday afternoon in the 2013 production of Robert Carsen. For this opera, you need a Falstaff, of course—but most of all, you need a conductor. A conductor who knows what he’s doing.
The Met had one in Daniele Rustioni, a Milanese who will turn forty next month. He had the suppleness and alertness required for this opera. The orchestra is a key “cast member,” if you will. Every twist and turn of the story is reflected in the orchestra. The orchestra doesn’t accompany, but rather plays.
And the Met orchestra on Sunday afternoon was outstanding. The texture was right: on the light side. The score, with its endless characterful lines, was transparent. The “chamber” quality of the opera was exhibited.
In the title role was Michael Volle, the German baritone—a pleasure to hear, a pleasure to watch. He is a very smart singer, with a very good voice. He is a keen actor as well. You had to grin when you saw him dance. In his Falstaff fat-suit, he was Gleasonesque.
Volle is admired for his Hans Sachs and his Dutchman, to name two Wagner roles. He also has a great love of Bach and other masters of the German Baroque—his father was a clergyman. Volle is a versatile singer, and a musician of a singer.
Question: Was he Italianate as Falstaff? Italianate enough, I would say. A convincing Falstaff, if maybe a tad foreign?
It’s not easy to spit out those Italian words: “dalle due alle tre”; “Quand’ero paggio del duca di Norfolk.”
Falstaff has a cast of ten, and, by my reckoning, there was but one Italian in the cast on Sunday afternoon: the tenor Carlo Bosi, in the small role of Dr. Caius. Otherwise, the cast was a veritable U.N., having names such as “Hera Hyesang Park,” “Marie-Nicole Lemieux,” and “Bogdan Volkov,” to go with “Michael Volle.”
Does it make a difference? I’m afraid it does, especially in a talky opera such as Falstaff. Even a simple sì or no sounds different out of an Italian mouth. But I wish to tell you a story.
Years ago, I interviewed Ferruccio Furlanetto, the great Italian bass. I asked, “Can a foreigner sing Italian properly?” “Yes,” he said. I asked for an example. “Kathleen Battle,” he said. (The American soprano.) “She sings Italian perfectly.”
Several members of Sunday afternoon’s cast were returnees from the Met’s Falstaff in the 2018–19 season, when Falstaff had last appeared on the Met stage. Among them was Ailyn Pérez, the American soprano. Her role in this show: Alice Ford.
She is such a stylish singer, Ailyn Pérez. Free—yet disciplined. Freedom within discipline is what performers strive for, be they singers, athletes, dancers . . . even writers, you could argue.
New to the Met’s Falstaff was Christopher Maltman, the British baritone, who sang Ford (i.e., Alice’s hubby). Years ago, he was prominent among the “bari-hunks”—the glamorous young baritones who often appeared shirtless. Now he is in his mid-fifties but plenty charismatic. He sang with musicality and volume. (On the whole, this was a mezzo-forte Falstaff, in that cavernous house.) And Ford’s monologue—“È sogno o realtà?”—had pathos.
There was not really a weak link in the cast. To omit names is not to slight them. Perhaps I could mention the young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, who were sung by the aforementioned Hera Hyesang Park (a South Korean soprano) and Bogdan Volkov (a tenor born in Soviet Ukraine). You want your Nannetta and Fenton to be fresh and endearing. They were.
Was Falstaff funny? Yes, it was. There were some excellent sight gags. The direction by Gina Lapinski is sharp. But, for some of us, Falstaff is no comedy. It is laced with pain—the pain and humiliation of Falstaff. Verdi identified totally with Falstaff. This is the view of Riccardo Muti, the veteran conductor, who has devoted much of his life to Verdi. We discussed this in an interview in 2016 (go here, if you like). I cannot see Falstaff as a comedy—essentially a comedy—anymore. If it’s a comedy, it’s a comedy that bites, hard.
Whatever it is, it is a masterpiece. The longer you live with Falstaff, the more you marvel at it. And wonder about it.