DIE LUSTIGEN WEIBER VON WINDSOR
Komisch phantastische Oper in 3 Akten
By Otto Nicolai
Libretto: Salomon Hermann Mosenthal
First performed: Königliches Opernhaus, Berlin, 9 March 1848
For more information about the opera, see the dossier.
The opera is based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Frauen Fluth (Mrs Ford) and Reich outwit Sir John Falstaff, who sent them love letters in a plot to wheedle money out of them. They trick Falstaff into hiding in a laundry basket, then throw him into the Thames. They trick him into disguising himself as an old woman, and Herr Fluth beats him. Their plots are complicated by Fluth’s jealousy and the Reichs’ daughter Anna and her three suitors. At the end, the townsfolk of Windsor all trick Falstaff, disguised as Herne the Hunter, and pinch him until he repents. Then, all friends again, they go off and have dinner.
The Merry Wives of Windsor, a commission for Elizabeth I, who wanted to see Sir John in love, is generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays, but it’s proved irresistible to opera composers. Salieri, Verdi, Balfe and Vaughan Williams all adapted it. It has a jolly fat man (ideal for a buffo bass), two clever women who run rings around everybody else, a jealous husband, a couple of young lovers, disguises, cross purposes, and a happy ending. There’s plenty of action, even if not always of an elevated kind (a fat man in drag being cudgeled), while the scene with the fairies at Herne’s Oak by moonlight gives any musician worth his salt an excuse for Romantic scene setting. And it can also be very funny. (The malapropisms, double entendres about Latin grammar, and French and Welsh mangling of English were probably funnier for Elizabethan audiences, but it also shows that the Bard was no highbrow. What other Shakespeare comedy has so many jokes about bodily fluids and functions? With a tribute to Good Queen Bess as queen of the fairies thrown in.)
Otto Nicolai’s version is a delight. His opera is best known for its exhilarating overture, once a standard of the concert hall, but his version – a German Singspiel, a mixture of spoken text and opera singing – has plenty to offer. Nicolai’s treatment of the busy, bustling plot is high-spirited and tuneful. The farcical action provides plenty of opportunity for ensembles and duets, while the young lovers’ subplot provides the lyrical, sentimental interest – the heart to the comedy.
Nicolai had an obvious talent for extended musical set pieces. The Act I finale (the laundry basket scene) runs to 18 minutes and 6 scenes; it begins with a duet, turns into a trio, and brings a large cast offstage and then back on again for an impressive ensemble. Mozart would approve.
A later number (#7) comprises a scene, a gracious romance, a lovers’ duettino, and a quartettino as the two other suitors watch jealously from behind bushes. Frau Fluth (the lead of the merry wives) has a vivacious aria, a brilliant piece that shows off the singer’s voice, with elaborate Italianate runs, while Frau Reich’s ballad about Herne the Hunter is a darkly Romantic piece, moodily accompanied by the horns.
There are moments of pure beauty, too. The Mondchor (Moon Chorus) “O susser Mond!” that launches the final scene is breathtakingly lovely. As the moon slowly rises, the violincellos and basses play a phrase, the horns and bassoons join them, with a regular drumbeat holding the music together. A clock strikes midnight in the distance. Nicolai knew the worth of this music; he used it to open the overture. The forest scene is enchanting; it’s in the line of German Romantic opera with its heroine dressed as Titania and two men disguised as Herne the Hunter. It ends in a really brilliant ensemble as the “spirits” pinch Falstaff.
This was Nicolai’s last opera; he died of a stroke two months after the opera’s premiere.
Norman Foster’s film, directed by Georg Tressler, and written “with the reluctant assistance of Shakespeare”. It is heavily cut, and sung in (often Teutonic or Slavic-accented) English, but it’s an agreeable comedy, full of energy and colour, and often attractive to watch. There are nods to Breughel and other Flemish masters; the ballerina Rosella Hightower dances the overture; and the forest scene is imaginatively staged; the villagers’ makeshift costumes for the spirits look like giant walking pumpkins, bird-headed men, or strange buckets, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. Foster makes a ferociously genial Falstaff, while Colette Boky is a delight as Mrs Ford: sensuous with a smile, and gleefully running rings around both the knight and her husband. She’s very fetching as she sings her aria while having a bath. “The Merry Wives of Windsor are amply endowed” indeed!
Bernhard Klee, 1976, with Edith Mathis, Hanna Schwarz, Kurt Moll, Bernd Weikl, Siegfried Vogel, Peter Schreier, and Claude Dormoy, with the Staatsoper Chorus and the Berlin Staatskapelle (Deutsche Grammophon)
Rafael Kubelik, 1978, with Helen Donath, Karl Riddersbusch, Wolfgang Brendel, and Lilian Sukis, with the Bavarian Radio Chorus and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Decca).
- Recitativ und Arie: “Nun eilt herbei, Witz, heitere Laune… Verführer! Warum” (Edith Mathis)
- Lied mit Chor: “Als Büblein klein” (Franz Crass)
- Romanze: “Horch, die Lerche singt” (Nicolai Gedda)
- Ballade: “Vom Jäger Herne” (Hanna Schwarz)
- Mondchor: “O süßer Mond“
- Tanz und Chor: “Faßt ihn, Geister“