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
- SIR JOHN FALSTAFF (bass)
- HERR FLUTH (baritone)
- FRAU FLUTH, his wife (soprano)
- HERR REICH (bass)
- FRAU REICH, his wife (mezzo-soprano)
- JUNGFER ANNA REICH, their daughter (soprano)
- FENTON, a young gentleman in love with Anna (tenor)
- JUNKER SPÄRLICH (tenor)
- DR. CAJUS, a physician (bass)
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.
Synopsis, based on Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Fayard, Paris, 2003
Frau Fluth has just received a love letter from Sir John Falstaff. Scandalised, she runs to tell her neighbour, Frau Reich, who was just about to tell her the same thing. Comparing the two letters, the women realise that they are identical. Deciding to play a prank on their would-be seducer, Frau Fluth persuades Frau Reith not to breathe a word to her husband. Their menfolk return home, in the company of Dr. Cajus and a certain Spärlich, both rivals for the hand of young Anna Reich; Reich supports Spärlich, and Frau Reich sponsors Dr. Cajus. Young Fenton asks Reich for Anna’s hand, but Reich would rather die than see his daughter marry a greenhorn without a penny, and sends him away. Frau Fluth prepares her little revenge on Falstaff; following her instructions, Frau Reich has sent a letter to her jealous husband, warning him that his wife has a tête-à-tête with the knight.
Before Falstaff can have his way, Frau Reich warns her neighbour that her husband is coming. The two women hide Falstaff in a washing-basket, but as the servants prepare to carry him outside, Fluth bursts in. Having imprudently let the basket go by, he jealously confronts his wife, then orders the house to be searched. Frau Reich tells Frau Fluth that the contents of the basket have been thrown into the river; the success of their first venture encourages the two women to plan another for the next day. Fluth’s search having yielded nothing, he suffers bitter reproaches from his wife, who threatens to leave him.
At the inn, Falstaff restores himself after his adventure. He receives a letter from Frau Reich who, offering him her excuses for the incident, invites him to another appointment that very morning. Falstaff sings a drinking song with the locals…
and then receives a certain Herr Bach, who is really Fluth in disguise, and who offers to pay Sir John for seducing Frau Fluth. Falstaff shares with him his exploits, without forgetting either the washing-basket or the new rendez-vous. The two gentlemen leave the inn arm in arm, Falstaff too preoccupied to hear his companion grinding his teeth.
In Reich’s garden, the three suitors – Spärlich, Cajus, and Fenton – serenade Anna; she favours the latter, to the fury of the others, hidden in the bushes.
Fluth’s arrival interupts Frau Fluth’s second tryst with Falstaff; to save the fat knight, the two women disguise him as a servant’s elderly aunt, “the witch of Brentford”, to whom Fluth has forbidden the house. After another jealous scene, Fluth flings himself onto the washing basket, which he empties, and runs through with his sword. Spärlich, Cajus, and Reich, invited as witnesses, watch with dismay. Enraged not to find Falstaff, Fluth takes his anger out on the old woman, whom he cudgels, before throwing her out.
The Reiches have the Fluths and Anna over for lunch. The merry wives have confessed their little schemes to their husbands, and Frau Reich suggests another project, that night, in Windsor Park.
Falstaff, disguised as Herne the Hunter, will be punished by all present, disguised as elves and sprites. Frau Reich will use the opportunity to give her daughter to Cajus, Reich will arrange her marriage with Spärlich, while Anna herself will marry Fenton.
Falstaff appears in Windsor Park, wearing antlers on his head. At the moment of the double tryst with Frauen Fluth and Reich, supernatural creatures appear, with Anna dressed as Titania.
As foreseen, Falstaff is generously cudgelled, pinched and mistreated.
In the dark, Cajus and Spärlich, disguised as elves, mistake each other for Anna, and rush off hand in hand to get married. They soon return, very disappointed, to see Anna and Fenton, disguised as Oberon, receive the nuptial blessing of her parents. Their happy marriage ends the farce.
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).