London’s Guildhall School Make Merry With the Wives of Windsor

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor: Soloists and Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama,  Clive Timms(conductor),  Silk Street Theatre, London, 10.11.11. (JPr)

Sioned Gwen Davies,Sky Ingram, Barnaby Rea (c) Clive Barda

Straightaway, I must write that Harry Fehr’s direction and the talent of the singers from the Guildhall School Opera Course, backed up by a solid chorus and a deft performance from the orchestra under the experienced Clive Timms, combined to give me one of the most entertaining evenings of opera I have been at for many years. When at least one University Music department I know is under threat because it tops a list now financial cuts are required, money does not seem to be a problem for the Guildhall School; in 2013 it will expand into additional new facilities nearby with state-of-the-art performance and teaching spaces. Meanwhile the current Silk Street Theatre is the venue for a production of Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor that puts into the shade many offerings by some larger state-funded organisations and other smaller opera companies whose pretensions exceed their presentations.

Few now remember the German composer Otto Nicolai who would surely have found his niche in the history of opera had he lived longer than his 38 years. He had some early success in Italy but his first operas there were overshadowed by the start of Verdi’s fame and this sparkling comedic masterpiece has been equally overlooked – like Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Leoncavallo’s La bohème – because Verdi wrote his own version of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor with his final opera, Falstaff. Nicolai’s opera has taken second place to this as perhaps it must, but for me on this showing, it is almost a dead heat.

Hermann Salomon Mosenthal, Nicolai’s librettist, faithfully followed the original Shakespeare play in all essentials – including the laundry basket antics – apart from the last scene, where Dr Caius (here Cajus) and Slender (Spärlich), instead of being each married to a ‘great lubberly boy’, wed each other to their obvious mutual discomfort. In 1841 Nicolai returned from Italy to Vienna to become Court Kapellmeister and it is often forgotten that there he founded the famous Philharmonic Society. In 1844, five years before his death, he had chosen The Merry Wives as the subject of an opera, but it was not until 9 March 1849 in Berlin, where he was now working, that it was premièred. The opera’s success was immediate but Nicolai was seriously ill, and although he managed to conduct the first four performances, like Bizet and Carmen, the composer lived only a few more weeks to enjoy his triumph.

None of Otto Nicolai’s other operas have survived but Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor is revived infrequently and so deserves to be heard more often. It is composed in the Singspiel tradition where the musical numbers are interrupted with spoken dialogue. Nicolai called it a ‘comic-fantastic opera’ and it mixes the styles of Carl Maria von Weber and Albert Lortzing mixed with a hint of Mendelssohn, especially in the scintillating overture that is familiar from the concert hall. For romance we have love scenes between Anna and Fenton, the ghostlike apparitions, music for the elves and the rising of the Moon. The comedy comes from the character of Falstaff and one of the great pleasures of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor is how this gargantuan figure of great appetites and titanic ego is deflated to human size. Equally in Nicolai’s version, the great pleasure comes from seeing all the familiar operatic staples – desire, perceived adultery, jealous rage and comeuppance – turned into tuneful farce for two playful wives, their uptight husbands, and young Anna’s two spurned suitors.

One of the greatest pleasures of Harry Fehr’s production was that the spirit of that deflation so often comes through, always playfully and without any hint of vindictiveness. Fehr is a former member of the Royal Opera’s Young Artists programme and together with his designer, Tom Rogers, has produced a wonderful ‘show’. It is basically all performed in two rooms – one pastel coloured and the other more starkly grey – that alternately provide the modern setting for all the scenes throughout the opera from the rushed breakfast of the Fluths and the more formal one for the Reichs during the overture to the magnificent setting for the opera’s Windsor Great Park denouement with a gnarled oak and huge moon dominating the back of the stage. With colourful costumes – including a French maid outfit for Frau Fluth and some PVC fetish gear, lederhosen and horns for Falstaff near the end – as well as exquisite lighting by Colin Grenfell, it really had to be seen to be truly appreciated. I do hope this production has a life after this short run of four performances, it certainly deserves to.

Not all the singing was first-rate because not all the performers are the finished article yet, but it was more than good enough. Barnaby Rea was very compelling as Falstaff and his drinking song ‘Als Büblein klein’ was suitably broad and intoxicating. So persuasive was he that there was a danger Falstaff could elicit more sympathy than perhaps he should. One of the other pleasures was Sky Ingram as a statuesque, titian-haired Frau Fluth; she was lovely throughout, and everything she did – including her on-going hoovering and dusting during the interval – oozed sex-appeal. Ms Ingram will go far. Her vocal performance also had much charm but the top of her lithe voice could do with a little more freedom, though his might just have been due to nerves. Even better were Sioned Gwen Davies’s forthright and accomplished Frau Reich, Ellie Laugharne who revealed a fine upper-register as a pert Anna, and Ciprian Droma who sang the bass role of Reich with some impressive quasi-Wagnerian resonance. The rest of the main cast – Victor Sicard as Fluth, Jorge Navarro-Colorado as Spärlich, Benjamin Appl as Dr Cajus and Luis Gomes as Fenton – obviously enjoyed themselves very much and so did all of us in the audience.

Die lustigen Weber von Windsor taps a strain of innocent pleasure in the often dark and humorless heritage of German Romanticism, and ‘innocent pleasure’ is just what the talented young directorial team, as well as, the Guildhall School’s Head of Opera Studies, Clive Timms, and his orchestra, provided.

Jim Pritchard


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