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
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|
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
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|
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.
8th March 2019
Production Photos: Karen Almond