There’s a lot of fat-shaming in Verdi’s “Falstaff,” but the opera has never really been a candidate for revision or cancellation, probably because the victim of those insults refuses to see himself as one. Eloquent and self-aggrandizing, Falstaff proudly identifies with his stature.
“This is my kingdom,” he proclaims, patting his belly, “I will enlarge it.”
On Sunday, in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Robert Carsen’s winning production, the baritone Michael Volle delivered the line in a room at the Garter Inn surrounded by butler’s carts spilling over with ravaged plates and wine-stained tablecloths. Falstaff’s kingdom — as within, so without. Such sly touches litter Carsen’s production set in the 1950s. A decade after its company premiere, it still looks fresh and earns the kind of enthusiastic laughter rarely heard in an opera house.
Beyond the appealing visuals — the yellow-chartreuse kitchen cabinets and flattering cinched-waist dresses — Carsen has provided opportunities for profundity. His lighting design with Peter Van Praet, in particular, offers clues — the raw naturalism for Falstaff’s pessimistic aria “L’onore! Ladri!” or the dusky sunset for Falstaff’s humbled reflections at the top of Act III.
Volle’s Falstaff leans into those subtleties. In his most recent Met assignments — as a futilely disempowered Wotan in the “Ring” cycle and a salt-of-the-earth Hans Sachs in “Die Meistersinger” — Volle has shown himself to be a Wagnerian of long, graceful focus. As Falstaff, he puts the noble grain of his voice to deliciously undignified use. This booming, endlessly interesting antihero comports himself as an entitled, well-bred gentleman who has tired of wearing dirty long johns and waiting for the universe to right his fortunes. His solution: some Tinder Swindler-style manipulations with two well-to-do married women.
Expounding a personal philosophy of honor and its uselessness in “L’onore! Ladri!” Volle sang with professorial authority, his voice emerging as if from a deep well. His smug “Va, vecchio John” flowed with syrupy self-satisfaction. When he waxed poetic about his salad days as the page of the Duke of Norfolk, his voice turned light, proud and assured — grandiloquent, yes, but also creditable.
The conductor Daniele Rustioni matched Volle’s conception, leading the orchestra in a rousing, confidently shaped performance. Verdi goes for deep sarcasm in his masterfully comic score — when the men make fools of themselves in bombastic monologues, the orchestration only intensifies — and there was nothing cutesy in Rustioni’s account of it. When the brasses trilled, they belly laughed. The bassoons galumphed; the strings ennobled passages of sincerity; and the horns had it both ways, sometimes jocular, sometimes expressive.
The opera’s female characters, never taking themselves — or the threat posed by badly behaved men — too seriously, often sing in ensembles rather than solos. Even so, Ailyn Pérez provided warm, elegant leadership as Alice with a glowing lyric soprano. Her rise as one of the Met’s leading ladies has been a pleasure of this season. The contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, clearly having a ball onstage as Mistress Quickly, received exit applause for her uproarious scene with Falstaff, in which she flashed some leg and flaunted a lot of plumpy tone. The mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano was a mettlesome Meg, and as Nannetta, Hera Hyesang Park revealed a soprano as limpid as fresh water, even if a few top notes sounded hard and unsteady.
As Ford, Christopher Maltman sang with a toughened baritone. Bogdan Volkov’s Fenton was sweetness itself.
The relentless patter of Verdi’s vocal writing against a full, busy orchestra presents distinctive challenges. The women anchored the double vocal quartet of Act I when the men started to rush the tempo, but otherwise, ensemble singing was admirably tight. The final fugue had astonishing transparency — Lemieux’s pitched guffaws cut through effortlessly — and Carsen’s staging neatly introduced each new voice as it joined the increasingly dense musical texture on a crowded stage.
Act III begins in a lonelier way — with Volle’s Falstaff crumpled in a small corner of a vast, empty space, where he is drying off and licking his wounds after being dumped unceremoniously in the Thames. A kindly waiter gives him a cup of warm wine, and he sings its praises with quietly arresting beauty. In that moment, the Wagnerian in Volle poked through, turning the humanity of Falstaff’s humbling into something sublime.
Through April 1 at the Metropolitan Opera; www.metopera.org.