12/07/2013 01:20 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2014

Met Opera: Maestri and Levine Team for a Joyful New 'Falstaff'

The world's favorite fat, foolish lover returned to the Metropolitan Opera stage last night in a new production of Verdi's Falstaff that with the splendid Anbrogio Maestri singing the knightly knave and the incomparable James Levine in the pit is an evening of pure delight.

The new staging by the imaginative Canadian director Robert Carsen, which has already won acclaim at Covent Garden and La Scala, moves the setting from the mid-16th century to the mid-20th and serves as an enchanting reminder that the follies of a profligate old goat in the first Elizabethan era are pretty much the same as those in Queen Elizabeth II's reign.

With a fine supporting cast and Maestro Levine conducting the always excellent Met orchestra in an opera he knows and loves so well, the musical richness of Verdi's last great masterpiece and Shakespeare's farce come joyfully alive. And they are joys the Met will share with opera lovers around the world when the new Falstaff is simulcast to some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries on December 14.

Maestri is a natural as Falstaff. He is a mountain of a man with a soaring baritone to match and he dominates the stage as any Falstaff should. With subtle phrasing and rich vocal brilliance, Maestri creates a Falstaff whose pomposity and gullibility is both hilarious and appealing. He delivers the opening act aria "L'onore" with the solemnity of a judge passing sentence, and while the second act "Va, vecchio John" brims with the confidence of a man embarking on a conquest, the third act reprise (in "Io, dunque") becomes a rueful meditation.

Verdi was approaching his 80th birthday and content to reap the accolades of a brilliant career when his friend and sometime collaborator Arrigo Boito suggested he write a comic opera based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. Verdi was a great admirer of Shakespeare, and it was Boito who had lured him out of retirement a few years earlier to write Otello.

As it turned out, the character of Falstaff provided the vehicle for both composer and playwright to work in a genre with which they were unfamiliar. Verdi, a master of dramatic opera, had always been stung by Rossini's comment that he could not write comic opera and he leapt at the challenge to prove him wrong. Legend has it that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives because Queen Elizabeth I wanted to see Falstaff in love, and that he knocked the play out in two weeks. True or not, it is his one pure farce, as opposed to the more fully-developed serious comedies.

For his new staging, Carsen transforms the Garter Inn into a hotel near Windsor in the 1950s. The curtain opens on Falstaff propped in a huge bed in a room crammed with old room-service trolleys, reading a newspaper. Bardolfo and Pistola are underneath the bed, hiding from an irate Dr. Caius, who arrives wearing a Bowler hat hiding a bad comb-over.

Subsequent scenes take place in the hotel's dining room and lounge, in Alice Ford's kitchen, which looks like a layout for an old "Better Homes and Gardens" magazine, and a rather eerie Windsor Great Park.

As they plot revenge on Falstaff, the ladies -- Alice Ford, Meg Page, Mistress Quickly and Nannetta -- are having tea in the dining room and are all dressed as if they had just come from a Tupperware party. Ford, at a nearby table, is in a double-breasted gray-flannel suit. By the time Mistress Quickly delivers the bait, Falstaff has changed from the dirty long underwear in the opening scene into outdated tweedy plus-fours, then into riding togs when he goes a-courting.

The rest of the cast adds to the fun. Angela Meade is the merriest of wives as Alice Ford, dancing about the stage and at once coquettish and mischievous as she gets her comeuppance on Falstaff not once, but twice. Stephanie Blythe is a wonderfully conniving Mistress Quickly, her strong mezzo ringing like a domineering nanny dealing with a particularly naughty boy, which in a way she is, and the baritone Franco Vassallo sings a credible Ford. Lisette Oropesa and Paolo Fanale (in a promising Met debut) are charming as the two young lovers Nannetta and Fenton.

With Levine leading a robust reading of Verdi's last great orchestral score, this Falstaff is a holiday gift any opera lover should not wait to open.