Comical ‘Merry Wives’ Is The Fantastic Affair Otto Nicolai Imagined


The chorus of the Volksoper Wien in Otto Nicolai’s ‘Die lustigen weiber von Windsor‘ (Photos by Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien)

VIENNA — “How can the drunk fat fella dare to hound me with affection?” asks Frau Fluth, ringleader of the merry wives of Windsor. Even more so than in Verdi’s Falstaff, penned five decades later, the ladies of Otto Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor are running the show.

The “comic-fantastic opera,” as the composer designated it, opened in a new production at the Volksoper here on May 13. The energetic cast and staging by the young director Nina Spijkers brushed the dust off the work with a winning combination of slapstick humor and high musical standards.

The merry wives, with Anett Fritsch, seated, as Frau Fluth, plot their revenge.

Nicolai, who was none other than the founder of the Vienna Philharmonic, originally composed Die lustigen weiber von Windsor for the Vienna Court Opera, which later became the Vienna State Opera. But he resigned his position there as Kapellmeister when the score was turned down, instead leading the premiere in 1849 at Berlin’s Royal Opera House, precursor of the Berlin State Opera. Although the overture is an occasional fixture at the Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert, the full opera is performed surprisingly little given its tight construction and elegant blend of Italian and German elements.

Spijkers updates the plot to 1918, the year of the fall of the Habsburg Monarchy; in 1919, women would vote for the first time, and the nobility would lose certain legal rights. Sets by Rae Smith are at once opulent and contemporary, with a rotating stage that pivots from colorful, at times over-the-top settings back to a bare proscenium, while Jorine van Beek provides period costumes.

The first scene takes place in a painting gallery where the husbands of Windsor are meekly practicing their artistry while Frau Fluth and Frau Ford pop their heads in and out of a nude portrait. If this has little connection to the libretto, the overall aesthetic ultimately serves to heighten the comedy. The Act Two scene in Page’s garden drew the most laughs from the audience as Anne’s suitors pranced around in female bathing suits.

The final scene in Windsor Park has a romantic but appropriately fantastical atmosphere, with a giant moon (for the chorus “O süsser Mond”) that casts a glow on Anne as she is married to her true love, Fenton. Dancing elves are represented by mushroom-like puppets that descend alongside a bit of real dancing (choreography by Florian Hurler), but carnivalesque masks and strong dramatic timing redeem the tableau.

Martin Winkler, on table at right as Falstaff, hoists a beer with Windsor friends.

The evening was above all carried by the cast’s vitality and charisma. As Frau Fluth, guest soprano Anett Fritsch anchored the production with immaculate text delivery, a rich lyric voice, and appropriately coquettish presence. She tirelessly rendered the first-act recitative and aria “Nun eilt herbei” — which nearly fills an entire scene — and carried consistently above ensemble numbers in subsequent acts.

The Fenton of ensemble member JunHo You was another standout: His ringing tenor is unusually powerful but also nuanced and emotionally evocative. He nearly took down the house when courting Anna Reich in the second act. As the young wife-to-be, Lauren Urquhart was reliably charming, adding a girlish touch as she nailed the third-act aria “Wohl denn, gefasst ist der Entschluss.”

The veteran ensemble member Martin Winkler, in the role of Falstaff, had withdrawn from dress rehearsal due to a vocal-chord inflammation but decided to carry on with the premiere. If his voice at first sounded a bit raw, his buffoonish portrayal of the knight left little to be desired, especially under the circumstances. His comic timing was consistently ideal, and his deep bass-baritone was nearly in full power for the second-act drinking song, “Als Büblein klein.”

JunHo You as Fenton and Lauren Urquhart as Anna Reich

Daniel Schmutzhard was magnetic and versatile as Herr Fluth, bringing natural farce to the stage in disguise as the gentleman Sir Bach in the second act. Aaron Pendleton was a stern Herr Reich and Stephanie Maitland a fine companion to Frau Fluth as his wife. Entertaining moments came from Alexander Fritze, as the Frenchman Dr. Cajus, and Carsten Süss, as Junker Spärlich (both courting Anne).

The chorus of the Volksoper was in strong voice, and guest conductor Ben Glasberg led the house orchestra in a flexible, mostly delightful performance. If the brass section was often too loud, the strings covered a full range of shadings while providing expert accompaniment to the singers. Nicolai’s opera should be performed more often, and what better place than the Volksoper, with its wealth of local talent and ability to capture the score’s Viennese flair.