However, his Metropolitan Opera staging of Verdi’s late masterpiece Falstaff, decades old and still in use, shows the Italian director in a subtler light. Refreshed since its 1960s’ debut, the sets as seen in this DVD of a 1992 televised performance do not exactly look fresh, but a certain worn aspect fits in well with the scene locations of a seedy tavern and the middle-class home of one of the merry wives. Only the final forest tableaux, modestly attractive, may make some viewers wish Zeffirelli had given into his more ostentatious urges. Then again, the rather drab video probably mutes some of the intended effect.
When a true star singer takes the title role, that central performance can overwhelm the performances of the members of what should be an ensemble cast. That doesn’t happen here, and the show is the better for it. Paul Plishka continues to be a valuable resource as a house singer for the Met, and he makes the most of this opportunity for a rare leading role. He finds both the laughable delusions of the ostensible nobleman and Sir John’s piquant humanity. He may not make the most of the role’s musical opportunities for characterization, yet his subtler approach swerves the composer’s intent very well.
The strength of the women would justify a return to the title of Shakespeare’s source, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Mirella Freni is a magnificent Mrs. Ford, playful, yet commanding. Near the start of their careers, both Barbara Bonney and Susan Graham sing with youthful attractiveness, though with not as much character as that of the veteran cast members. The perfect example of that comes in Marilyn Horne’s Miss Quickly. A playful Ms. Horne uses her expert comic timing to great effect, and that over-developed richness of her voice that made many of her late performances heavy going for some people does not get much use in Verdi’s fleet-footed writing. A young Frank Lopardo shines in his brief act three solo. Bruno Pola as Ford makes for an almost too gruff and unpleasant comic foil, and what should be his highlight moment slows down the pace.
James Levine loves the energy and rhythmic pulse of the score; those who find his approach eventually exhausting will surely get tired. A good counterpart to this very well sung Falstaff in traditional garb is the Mehta/Raimondi update from the Maggio Musicale Florentine, also well-sung but with an edgier comic profile.