In some parts of our country “Falstaf” like Utica Club or Iron City, is just a regional beer. But for most theatre goers it’s the name of a seminal figure in Shakespeare’s Henry the IVth plays. For opera lovers, it’s not the bold Falstaff of the Henry plays, but the silly lover of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” who holds the stage. There are four prominent entries. From the eighteenth century, there is an opera, “Falstaff” by Mozart’s rival Salieri. There are two in the 19th century, Otto Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and Verdi’s “Falstaff.” In the twentieth century Vaughan Williams continued the line with “Sir John in Love.”
This season the IU Opera Theater has chosen to produce Nicolai’s opera. It’s just the third time they’ve chosen the work and the first time since 1981. The Verdi masterpiece has been done six times. In Bloomington, since 1971, it’s been appearing about every five years. Although I’ve heard that Nicolai’s work is quite popular in Germany, internationally it’s Verdi’s treatment that has held the stage. I’m not fond of using straw men in reviews, but the mathematician in me has to ask, “Is Verdi’s “Falstaff” twice as good as Otto Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor?”
Without going into a point by point argument, the answer is,” No.!” Verdi is very, very good, very deep, very mature, very beautiful, even soulful, but it’s not twice as good. Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is full of lovely smooth melodies with contrasting energetic sections. The overture showcases these virtues and has held the concert stage ever since it was introduced. He was a contemporary of Mendelssohn and Chopin and the musical language is very much like there’s. Nicolai’s librettist Salomon Hermann von Mosenthal did a skillful job of adapting Shakespeare’s play for an operatic stage.
The IU Opera Theater’s production is done with German singing and English speaking. Stage director Vincent Liotta has done a nice job or translating the dialog back into English and Saturday night’s singers did an exemplary job of making their speech as clear as their arias. Jennifer Jakob and Ursula Kuhar were charming as the merrily scheming wives. Thomas Florio was more than man enough as the ever resilient scheming and schemed upon Falstaff. Kenneth Pereira was the adeptly comical suspicious scheming husband and Joseph Beutel was solid as the more confident family father. Caitlin Andrew Shirley was the lovely daughter, who pursued by family approved suitors Michael Cummings, as a silly milksop, and Steven Eddy, as a comic French man, had eyes only for the romantic poor boy Daniel Shirley and schemes of her own.
Throughout the production, the plot was nicely delineated. Characters were always clear and the comedy was broad and broadly presented. The final dance sequences in Windsor Forest were choreographed by the head of IU’s Ballet Theater Michael Vernon. David Effron got lovely sounds from his orchestra and nicely balanced the pit and stage throughout.
The IU Opera Theater’s production of Otto Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” continues with performances on Friday October 31st and Saturday November 1st.