Following last week's opening gala, yesterday evening was my first proper operatic outing of the season at the Metropolitan Opera: Verdi's Falstaff with Bryn Terfel in the title role.
Falstaff was Verdi's last opera, and the only one of his (very few) comedies to survive in the regular repertoire. Technically, it is extremely difficult for both singers and the orchestra so it is only seen with any frequency at the very meatiest opera house. Luckily, the Met fits this criterion with no trouble. Last night's performance was one of the most exquisite evenings of elevated entertainment that I have experienced in two decades or so of opera-going.
Terfel has made Falstaff something of a signature role, having performed it many times around the world. He knows the part inside out and his voice is stunning. What made last night so special was that he was surrounded by a large cast that was, without exception, equally marvellous (my personal favourite being Stephanie Blythe as a particularly delicious Mistress Quickly).
In the pit, James Levine brought out every dazzling nuance of the intricate wit of Verdi's score. Melodies were tossed lightly from woodwind, to strings, to soprano, to contralto.
The production, by Franco Zeffirelli, is not as objectionable as most of Zeffirelli's Met output. His England is a world of beige and autumnal hues that works rather well. His love of the excessive rather undermined the final scene set in Windsor Great Park - a horse and two goats (yes, goats) were brought on stage. Why? Goodness only knows. They served only to distract from the lovely singing of soprano Heidi Grant Murphy in the small role of Nanetta.
My only other caveat with the evening is that it slightly overstressed the comedy. Verdi's Windsor should have an edge, a hint of danger lurking beneath the surface. The final humiliation of Falstaff should make the audience uncomfortable. Playing it merely for laughs rather undermines the subsequent exhilarating reconciliation. The production portrayed Falstaff too much as merely the self-deluding buffoon, rather than bringing out the more complex and even noble figure that lurks beneath that enormous belly.
But not for one second did the music lose its spell. If last night is anything like a sign of things to come at the Met, then I am in for a lip-smackingly delicious year of opera. The thunderous approval given to last night's performance suggests that the audience agrees.