This state’s conservatory-level institutions provide opera lovers with opportunities to see productions of rare repertoire. The University of North Carolina School of the Arts has had a long history of fine productions, and the addition of the advanced singers from the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute has raised the vocal standards even higher. Physical production values have been high due to the ingenuity of the members of the School of Design and Production. The restored Stevens Center is a delightful venue for Baroque, Classical and early Romantic works.

The current production of Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor (Merry Wives of Windsor) by Otto Nicolai (1810-49) is a richly rewarding mixture of sight-gags, word-play, and solid vocalism. This singspiel has a nice variety of solos and ensembles for all the major characters, and the extensive stretches of spoken word have been wisely pared down. No credit was given in the bare-bones program, but the English translation was probably by Josef Blatt. The supertitles were sometimes useful but overall the quality of the lead singers’ diction was quite high. Nicolai’s libretto, by Salomon Hermann von Mosenthal, is loosely based on the comedy by Shakespeare but differs significantly from the better-known adaptation Arrigo Boito made for Giuseppe Verdi – for example, there is no Dame Quickly in Nicolai’s opera.

The School of the Arts Orchestra played with considerable refinement and skill under the able baton of James Albritten. Most of the time, the balance between the stage action and the musicians in the deep pit was very good. Repeated performances will settle out the few rough spots. Concertmaster Kaitlin Moreno’s extensive solo supporting Anne Page’s passionate Act III aria was superb. The horn section blended beautifully and subtly to underline references to the antlers of cuckolds. Oboist Mazie Swaso-Derrick played several welcome solos. The strings played with excellent ensemble and the low strings, the cellos and basses, were superb in the hushed opening of the opera’s overture and in supporting the haunted forest in Act III, scene 3. The chorus was well-drilled and their diction usually made the supertitles unnecessary. The major exception occurred during the opening of the last scene of Act III, where their sounds made a lovely contribution to the eerie forest setting but who could figure out their text – the subtitles were badly needed in this case!

The major cast is reviewed in order of stage appearance. Soprano Kristin Schwecke brought plenty of power to the role of Alice Ford, and her voice was seamless and evenly supported across its range. The solid mezzo-soprano voice Kate Farrar, who played Meg Page, made a nice contrast to Schwecke, and the two blended well in their duet. Farrar threw herself into melodrama with sweeping gestures during her singing of the ballad of Herne the Hunter in Act III. As George Page, bass Steven Slupe made the most of small opportunities in a role more given to speech. Tenor Kenneth Pettigrew’s warm tone hinted of vocal qualities barely touched on in the role of Abraham Slender, George Page’s preferred wealthy suitor for his daughter Anne. The role of the absurd Dr. Caius is likewise more comic than vocal but tenor André Peele pulled out all the stops with his mishmash of three languages and frequent changes into very colorful costumes. The unlikely married suitors were given a contemporary spin and were a big hit with the audience! Jealous passions barely held in check combined with a fine, even baritone made Ted Federle an ideal Frank Ford, Alice’s unfairly jealous husband.

Jonathan Johnson combined a lovely, warm timbre with a beautifully focused tenor voice in the role of Fenton, the poor but true love of Anne Page. His lovely voice was nicely matched by the glowing soprano of Catherine Park as Anne Page. Her even, seamless voice proved to have a considerable depth of power in her big Act III prima donna aria. The big delight of the production, and I do mean “big” in so many senses, was the magnificent Falstaff of bass Richard Ollarsaba. His full, rich sound, with plenty of bottom, was ideally at one with his truly full assumption of the character. What superb timing! What wonderful gestures! What “comic gravitas”! The speaking-only roles were effectively taken by Zach Eley-Durbin as the Host of the Garter Inn, Cameron Flynt as Robin, and Logan Webber as Rugby.

Stage Director Steven LaCrosse made good use of the stage space and sets, keeping soloists and chorus in efficacious blockings and dramatically telling stage business. The unit sets, designed by James Edward Burns, were very effective and changed with relative ease. The Elizabethan interior of Ford’s House, on washing day in Act I, with its wainscoting, multiple lines draped with wash, and the large wicker laundry basket, was very effective. A swift rearrangement evoked the Garter Inn with barrels of sack and wine in the background. Kenneth Wills’ lighting design culminated in the dark, eerie forest with flowing fog rolling into the pit and flashes of light suggesting a storm. The ancient tree stump and pairs of hedges that came in on their own power in the last scene reminded me of the warnings of the Witches to Macbeth. (Were they cuttings from Birnam Wood?) Heather Jessup’s costume designs were terrific! Those for the unlucky suitors, Dr. Caius and Slender, were a hoot. She clearly put in a great deal of effort to even greater effect for Sir John Falstaff. The fairy costumes were very effective. Her design for Anne Page, disguised as Titania, was a stunning, radiant white. This was an altogether wonderful production of a lovely, witty Falstaff opera too often overshadowed by that of the combined geniuses of Boito, Verdi, and the Bard of Avon.