Monday, March 11, 2019

A jubilant debut for one Aussie soprano in a surprising and jaunty Falstaff at New York’s Metropolitan Opera

How would it feel to stand on the enormous stage of New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera, face its vast almost 4000-seat auditorium and make your house debut as an opera singer? I’ll never know. Few who tirelessly work dreaming of making singing opera a career would either. But not so for Aussie soprano Helena Dix whose dreams were realised on Friday when, in bringing Alice Ford to life in Verdi’s Falstaff, ascended into the constellation of Met Opera artists.

Australian soprano Helena Dix
Photo: Grzegorz Monkiewicz
This was a longtime scheduled performance for the season with Dix sharing the role with American soprano Ailyn Pérez, singing one night of the total run of 7 performances. Many loved ones, friends and well-wishers were there for support, her name and bio were there in black and white in the playbill and from the moment Dix took the stage, she appeared relaxed and natural. That she slipped into the already well-settled ensemble, headed by the great Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri in the title role, was testament to her talent, spirit, preparedness and application. 

Dix is more than familiar with the backstage and rehearsal rooms of the Met Opera. Since 2015 she has covered major roles sung by notable singers including Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. It began with Elvira in Ernani, then Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux, Elettra in Idomeneo, and the title roles of both Norma, and Semiramide. At short notice any of these taxing roles could have become Dix’s unscheduled debut. Judging by Friday night’s performance, you sensed that they were in capable hands.

As for Verdi’s work itself, you might think it’s all about one of literature’s larger than life characters, John Falstaff. But you could just as well make the subject of its story the bunch of women working together to outsmart this lecherous slob who’s trying to seduce two married women among them. Shakespeare’s title The Merry Wives of Windsor, on which Falstaff is based, reflects that. Serendipitous or not, it also happened to be International Women’s Day. Dix’s outstanding debut together with Alice Ford and her ladies’ resolve and zealousness was of sorts, a celebration of their achievement. 

Ambrogio Maestri  as Falstaff with Keith Jameson and Richard Bernstein 
English Director Robert Carsen’s comically quick and dramatically lucid 1950s update is thoroughly entertaining and a snug fit with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan-set story. In the ‘pleasantness’ of their lady-lunching lifestyle, the merry wives of Windsor are still rated as second-class citizens but empowerment and rights have slowly crept up. It also helps that Arrigo Boito’s libretto is so comically lively and visually evocative. 

The Garter Inn is a large hotel with the air of declining grandeur. The handsome oak-panelled set (Paul Steinberg), crisp costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) and tableaux-enhancing lighting (Peter Van Praet) present a marvellous visual solution. Alice Ford’s sprawling pastel modern 50s kitchen in Act 2, where the first plan is carried out to teach Falstaff a lesson occurs, received audible audience backing. When Ford and his men turn the kitchen inside out looking for Falstaff, cupboard contents fly across the stage in one of the production’s most memorable moments. 

In Act 3’s opening scene, the Garter Inn’s internal oak walls create a cornered space for the external setting alongside the Thames River. It seems a visual let-down after the detailed attention of previous scenes but the presence of a horse hungry for some hay adds comic uncertainty that just about upstages Maestri’s lone appearance as Falstaff bemoans his sorry state. When the oak walls separate for the final scene at Herne's Oak in Windsor Park, an atmospheric midnight starry-sky is exposed for Alice and Falstaff’s fateful rendezvous. It’s a marvellous setting with its chorus of caped masqueraders donned in antler-horned hats.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and
Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff
Teamwork was paramount and Verdi’s final opera got it with a genuinely unified cast and superlative comic timing. Dix was as perfect a fit with comic mannerism in the scheme to thwart Falstaff as she was in singing Alice with lushness and freedom. Those cheeky wandering fingers Melbourne Opera audiences met in Dix’s riveting Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux (if only the Met Opera audience saw what she could do with Elizabeth there), that warm custardy centre and buttressed soaring top she made an especially devastating highlight of in a thrashing final scene in Windsor Park - they spun their magic. Dix was rapturously applauded. And from colleagues Marie-Nicole Lemieux - a cavorting and crafty Mistress Quickly in powerfully sonic deep plummy voice - and Jennifer Johnson Cano - glamorous, rich and creamy voiced as Meg Page - came a cheery rose petal shower salute. In character and out, it was clear the trio shared a good rapport, as they did a celebratory dance and a bevvy or two.

As Alice’s daughter, South African soprano Golda Schultz was an absolutely divine and sparkling sung Nannetta. Schultz paired splendidly with Italian tenor Francesco Demuro. The warmth and bright lyricism of his voice were well-suited to his youthful Fenton, portrayed as a formally dressed hotel waiter. Juan Jesús Rodríguez’s handsome burnished baritone as Alice’s husband Ford, Richard Bernstein’s ringing Pistola, Keith Jameson’s brawny Bardolfo and Tony Stevenson’s cloddish Dr Caius were all on their game and contributed excellently to the ensemble’s demands.

Francesco Demuro as Fenton and Golda Schultz as Nannetta
And what of Falstaff, that ageing old gluttonous fool deluded by his self-proclaimed unrivalled manliness? Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri was formidable. As a Falstaff of huge proportion, a playful falsetto, a theatre-filling voice and an unforgettable sight in repulsive, soiled onesie underwear, Maestri’s comic ease, his agility and guttural colours shone splendidly.

British conductor Richard Farnes offered bright and robust form to introduce Falstaff’s chaotic and speedy opening exchange with his shady henchmen. From there the score pulsed with jaunty life, including passages that swept its lyrical delights along with notable delicacy. The complete picture from stage to pit offered surprise, expertise and lush entertainment. 

And could it be that, in their symbolism of spiritual authority, Carsen incorporated the finale’s fantastic forest of antler hats in recognition of Falstaff’s triumphant women? I do believe so. And when Dix took her curtain call, before her on stage was a pair of antlers reaching for the sky in what may very well be an auspicious sign that takes her to a new level. 

Metropolitan Opera
Lincoln Centre
8th March 2019

Production Photos: Karen Almond


  1. Great review Paul! Many thanks for filling in details of Helena's debut for those Aussie audience members and fans who couldn't be there. Regards, Matt Phillips

  2. Great points there, thanks. And here is the relevant article, maybe someone will find it useful too