Otto Nicolai: The Merry Wives of Windsor - 6 Great Performances

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Carlos Kleiber: Die lustigen weiber von windsor / The Merry Wives of Windsor

Otto Nicolai, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Overture - Gilberto Serembe, conductor

Otto Nicolai - The Merry Wives of Windsor - Overture
Philharmonia Orchestra London, George Randolph Warren

Hans Knappertsbusch conducts Wiener Philharmoniker,
"Overture" The Merry Wives of Windsor

Die lustigen weiber von Windsor (1849) - Selected highlights

History: In 1841, after a period of several years in Italy during which he wrote four Italian operas with mixed success (the best of which - "Il templario" - was presented in an earlier upload), Otto Nicolai took up the post of Kapellmeister at the Vienna Hofoper where he was commissioned to write a German opera. He seems to have been unable to find a subject that satisfied him, revising, in the meantime, his earlier operas. In 1845 he finally decided on an adaptation of Shakespeare's "The merry wives of Windsor", offering the resulting "Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor" for production at the Hofoper, but it was turned down and he had to resign his post. In 1847 he went to Berlin as Kapellmeister at the cathedral and at the Hofoper where he would conduct the highly successful premiere of his opera two years later. Nicolai did not live long, however, to enjoy his triumph, dying of a stroke just two months after the premiere at the age of 38 (similar, in fact, to Bellini who died tragically in a matter of months after the premiere of "I puritani"). However, his opera never lost its place on the German stage, and the charming overture is still popular in the concert hall.

Narrative: The libretto treats Shakespeare's story well enough, though Nicolai's poet, Hermann Mosenthal, presents the composer with a text of competence but little more (unlike Defranceschi for Salieri and Boito for Verdi). The main outline of the story is, yet again, preserved: Frau Fluth (soprano) and Frau Reich (mezzo-soprano) (Alice Ford and Meg Page, respectively (why were the surnames changed remains a mystery)) each receive a letter from the titular knight (bass), proclaiming his undying love for them. The women are quick to establish a cunning plan of revenge against the buffoon. On the positive side, the libretto retains practically the whole cast of the bard: the jealous husbands (baritone and bass), the lovers, Anna Reich (soprano) and Fenton (tenor), and Anna's suitors, Sparlich (tenor) and Dr. Cajus (bass), are all present. However, much of the original humor is sadly lost, thus, the invitations of Falstaff to the Fluth's house, Falstaff's progressively growing reluctance to return to the wooing of Frau Fluth after each trick, the numerous disguises are completely left out, though both Salieri and Verdi relished these comedic moments. Still, different musical and dramatic values have shaped Verdi's, Salieri's and Nicolai's readings.

Music: While the ever-popular sinfonia is certainly a winning orchestral piece, the work that follows Nicolai's charming prelude is actually just as wonderful and, in most cases, even more inspiring: Nicolai's score sparkles delightfully from start to finish, reminding one immediately of the Mendelssohn we've encountered in the earlier Liederspiels. The writing combines Italianate melodies and German richness of accompaniment, a balance which the young Wagner envisioned but failed to achieve in "Das Liebesverbot" (1836). While the men are rather sparingly characterized (a fault of the original story) and Nicolai's Falstaff is much more subdued than the gargantuan caricature Salieri and Verdi produced, Nicolai still gives each group of characters a quite distinct portrayal: the cunning wives of the title (indeed, they are at the center of the opera) are characterized through congenially light, flirty music, while their dumbfounded husbands and, to an even greater extent, Falstaff himself bluster effectively. Unlike most other versions, Nicolai also lavishes much of his inspiration on the young lovers, Fenton and Anna (whereas the lovers are completely absent from Salieri's reading, while Verdi allots them with a rather small amount of music), whose long Act II scene is easily the opera's best number. But the highlights are, indeed, too numerous: wonderfully madcap confrontations of the husbands and wives in both Act I and Act II, a "pensive" drinking song for Falstaff, as he literally yawns due to the extensive amounts of ale he has consumed; sprightly "fairy" music in Act III. The only quibble one could possibly present is the fact that the libretto somewhat precludes Nicolai from further developing the characters and denies him the opportunity to produce an even greater score.

Recording: The presented 1963 recording, conducted with vigor by Robert Heger, leading the clear-voiced Bayerisches Staatsorchester and Chorus, is an almost perfect representation of the opera: three excellent female singers (a young Edith Mathis as Anna being a particular delight), an ideal primo tenor and glowing basses.

Falstaff - Gottlob Frick,
Fluth - Ernst Gutstein,
Reich - Kleth Engen,
Fenton - Fritz Wunderlich,
Sparlich - Friedrich Lenz,
Cajus - Carl Hoppe,
Frau Fluth - Ruth-Margret Putz,
Frau Reich - Gisela Litz,
Anna Reich - Edith Mathis.

NICOLAI: "Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor" Ouvertüre
ERICH KLEIBER conducts Orchester der Staatsoper, Berlin
Record : GRAMMOPHON 66556 / Matrix nos. 337bi, 338bi
recorded in 1927