The pre–Gerard Mortier era at New York City Opera is ticking inexorably to a close; NYCO’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff is a bittersweet reminder of what New York opera lovers will lose when Mortier, the radical proponent of Regietheater, becomes director in 2009. Anyone who has taken NYCO for granted, or slighted the company in favor of the Met, its fabulously wealthy Lincoln Center neighbor, should rush to see this delightful production of Verdi’s last opera. Falstaff is a splendid example of what the company at its best has provided New York: highly polished productions of well- and lesser-known works that regard the composer’s intentions as definitive.
Operatic treatments of Shakespeare, including those by Verdi himself, can seem reductive compared with the Bard’s complex voice and vision. Verdi’s Falstaff, however, is arguably an improvement on its urtext, The Merry Wives of Windsor. If you find yourself worn down by the incessant punning and often obscure Elizabethan humor in Shakespeare’s comedies, the more straightforward Italian libretto of Arrigo Boito, which makes little effort to replicate Shakespeare’s intricate wordplay, will come as a relief. (However, Boito’s freely revised version of Falstaff’s speech about honor, borrowed from Henry IV, Part I, manages to capture uncannily the Shakespearean voice: “What, then, is honor?” Verdi’s Falstaff asks. “A word.”) Freed of the punning imperative, the marvelous character of Falstaff dominates the opera.
The score is wondrous, incessantly shimmering and moving, and filled with a gossamer lightness that recalls Mendelssohn more than Verdi. In the dueling female and male staccato quartets of the first act, Rossini seems to have come back to life, so taut and fleet is their tongue-in-cheek wit. Yet their syncopated rhythms go beyond what even Rossini achieved. The score also uses dark Verdian undertones to richly ironic effect. The hint of bathos that surrounds the young lovers, and the swift alternation of their love duets with the mad, propulsive music of the adults, anticipates that masterpiece of comic compression, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. In fact, like Gianni Schicchi, Falstaff makes you cry out in despair that its composer wrote just one comic opera. I can think of one or two Verdian tragedies that I would trade for another Falstaff. In any case, it defies all understanding that the aged Verdi could have come up with this completely unanticipated work, produced in secret, at the end of his life.
Bass-baritone Jan Opalach, the production’s Falstaff, has been a valuable member of New York’s vocal scene for years. I last heard him in June 2007, in Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer at New York City Ballet—a disappointing performance, dragged down mostly by his less accomplished colleagues. As Falstaff, however, Opalach is unimpeachable: his voice full, his diction now leeringly drawn out, now percussive; mockingly grandiose here, selfishly cunning there.
I am haunted by the image of Falstaff padding in stocking feet toward another trap after having been dumped into the cold Thames from the laundry basket. His splendid orange and gold-brocade costume for wooing Mistress Ford is in tatters; an unwound legging drags behind him like a child’s blanket. Yet he steps hopefully, if a little cautiously, toward yet another assignation letter that Dame Quickly holds out to him, his round silhouette adding to his endearing childlike innocence. Opalach makes us grateful for Falstaff’s existence. Every time Falstaff is struck down by another well-deserved assault on his self-delusion, you hold your breath: will he finally be deflated and lost to us? But no, after a pause, he pops up again, undaunted by the mockery. What a relief! Falstaff is back.
The rest of the cast is almost uniformly excellent. Mezzo-soprano Ursula Ferri as Dame Quickly sings with a full-bodied ease that recalls the Met’s Stephanie Blythe and conveys a devilish delight in tricking the gullible Falstaff. Baritone Stephen Powell, as the jealous Ford, exhibits a manly tone and an absurd comic style as he leads his followers on a furious hunt for the fat man cuckolding him. Anna Skibinsky’s ingénue Nanetta, realized with a beautiful, clear soprano, makes an impressive contrast with her earthy and knowing Adina in Jonathan Miller’s misconceived 2006 production of Elisir d’Amore at NYCO. Mistress Alice Ford receives a confident, forceful interpretation from Pamela Armstrong. At the dress rehearsal that I attended on March 14, the ensemble work, especially in Act I, was the only ragged aspect of the performance; the fiendishly challenging quartets threatened to fly apart. With luck, they will tighten by opening night.
George Manahan conducts with appropriate zest. Leon Major’s traditional production, with sets and charming costumes by John Conklin, was blissfully free of the egomaniacal directorial intrusions that destroy so much opera today. Nothing might seem more absurd than updating this comedic treasure, which combines Elizabethan ribaldry with nineteenth-century musical clout, to a crack house, say, frequented by pimps and prostitutes. Absurd, yes—but entirely possible, when Mortier takes the helm. If, as director of the Salzburg Festival, he could populate Die Fledermaus with violent, coke-snorting boors with a predilection for perverse sex and Nazi politics, he could certainly wrench Falstaff into equally grotesque territory.
True, NYCO has hardly been free of Regietheater posturing over the years. Its valuable Handel cycle contained its share of musically insensate modernizations that put the production’s visual elements into painful opposition to the score. But NYCO also produced a trove of honest, loving productions. New York operagoers should seize every last opportunity the company still offers for classic interpretations—not only for the musical pleasure they offer, but also to remind NYCO’s board that its desperate pitch for “relevance” was unnecessary and ill-advised.