Opera lovers who are short on budget or hungry for novel or imaginative opera performances ought to snap up an opportunity to catch any production presented by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro's School of Music and Department of Theatre. Rare operas or imaginative stagings by David Holley and the talented young singers and musicians are invariably a treat, and there is always a chance to hear future stars on the way up. Discerning music lovers, students and relatives were on hand in Aycock Auditorium April 3 for Otto Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor, sung in an English translation by Josef Blatt. Nicolai, who founded the Vienna Philharmonic in 1842, combined the best qualities of German Romanticism with the "bel canto" style that he mastered during some seven years in Italy. Listening to the music, I thought I heard echoes of Mendelssohn in Nicolai's fairy music, of Offenbach's rousing comic choruses, and a touch of Wagner. The Mendelssohn dates from 1824 and 1842, preceding The Merry Wives of 1848. Offenbach's works date from the 1880s, however, and, according to Edward Downes (writing in The New York Philharmonic Guide to the Symphony), Wagner lifted Nicolai's "most infectiously lilting theme of the Overture (which never occurs in the opera itself)... (and) appropriat(ed) it for one of the most ingratiating episodes in the third act of his Die Meistersinger ." In New Grove I, Thomas-M. Langner writes that "with this opera Nicolai brought to a peak the bourgeois Romantic comic opera. A popular national style, felicitous melodies and a genuine comic situation combine with polished and consistently worked-out ensembles and finales to produce a masterpiece... the finest early Romantic German comic opera." This Singspiel, which Nicolai called a Komisch-phantastische Opera ("fantasy comic opera"), has some seventeen sung numbers laced together with spoken dialog. Additional narration was kept brief and given via acoustic speakers during set changes. Eluza Santos was responsible for the choreography of the "fairies," who scurried about in the concluding Windsor Forest scene, tormenting the terrified Falstaff.]
The unit sets, designed by Marlaina Seay and atmospherically lighted by Erin Hisey, were simple and effective. Act I was a plausible multi-level set that suggested Mr. Ford's house. For Act II's Garter Inn, there was a huge beer barrel with a spigot and three sets of mounted deer antlers on either side. Stylized trees and darkened lighting converted the set into Windsor Forest in Act III. The alert chorus was prepared by Richard Earl Cook. Appropriate costumes were designed by Gay Hensley; kudos to the immense stuffing for bringing apt bulk to the Great Knight. Despite a few very minor opening night glitches, the members of the UNCG Opera Orchestra brought off the brilliant orchestration under Robert Gutter's flexible and stylish direction. Concertmaster Dan Skidmore was superb in his extended solo. The horn section was in good form for their many section solos, given just about any time there were allusions to "cuckold" or Herne, the legendary hunter. Extended duets for bass clarinet and bass flute were memorable, too; the players' identities were ambiguous in the otherwise splendid, detailed program, which included both photographs and biographies of the major cast and staff members. It was a model of its type. Instead of using cellos, Nicolai scored for violas as a section solo underpinning Mrs. Ford's aria, filled with anguish for her husband's jealousy.
Some singers seemed a little wooden in their acting but most quickly warmed to their roles, none more so than baritone Charles Stanton as the hot-tempered and jealous Mr. Ford, who suddenly came alive as a full character in Act 2, where, disguised as Mr. Brook, he bribed Falstaff to seduce his wife. Reneé Janette Sokol was stunning as his long-suffering wife, Mrs. Ford, revealing a firmly focused and supported dramatic soprano voice and plenty of coloratura ability. She was superb throughout the whole opera.
Mezzo-soprano Nicole Elizabeth Asel was effective as her friend and co-conspirator, Mrs. Page. Another outstanding soprano voice was that of Rita Dottor, as Anne Page, who was superb in both her solo aria and the extended duet with her plaintive tenor lover, Jeffery Maggs as Fenton. Tenor Nathan Kling brought out the dumb humor of Anne's unwanted suitor, Slender. Baritone Daniel Hunter-Holly was Dr. Cajus, the sword-happy French suitor of Anne. Baritone Jeffrey Carlson had relatively little to do as Mr. Page, as did Todd DeBra, as a neighbor. Bass Sidney Outlaw's assumption of Sir John Falstaff was another triumph for this young singing actor with a gift for comedy. Unlike some stage Falstaffs, Outlaw conveyed the sense of Falstaff's great weight in every scene. His highly mobile face was infinite in its expressive range, which he was able to project well into the hall. In Act I, when servants carry out the huge laundry basket, Falstaff's feet could be seen scurrying along underneath. Dressing in drag and a falsetto voice in Act II were highlights of Falstaff's disguise as "Mother Pratt," whom Mr. Ford despises. Unlike Verdi, Nicolai portrayed all three tricks played upon Falstaff that Shakespeare wrote in the original play. As expected, he wore antlers in Act III. Outlaw brought a good bass voice to his "drinking song" in Act II. Each year it develops more depth and resonance.