An Overshadowed 'Merry Wives' Comes to Juilliard

Monday, Jan 29, 2018
Thomas May
Juilliard Journal
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Juilliard Opera Presents Nicolai's Singspiel in German with English Dialogue

A costume design from 'Wives'
Costumes for the production were designed by Audrey Nauman

By a strange coincidence, the swan songs of two 19th-century composers, Giuseppe Verdi and Otto Nicolai, are dazzling comic operas that are based on the same play: Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was first registered in 1602. (The exact date of its writing is disputed.)

Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff is the better known of these two operas based on Merry Wives, and it holds pride of place not only as one of that composer’s supreme achievements but as a candidate for the finest translation of Shakespeare to the operatic stage overall. (His previous work, Otello, is also a contender.) And because of its towering reputation, Falstaff has effectively eclipsed the otherwise highly successful Merry Wives of Windsor, by the German-born Otto Nicolai, Verdi’s senior by only three years—and his rival in the Italian opera scene early in their careers. Juilliard Opera will stage this rarity (known by its original German title, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor) at the Willson Theater (Feb. 14–18).

Nicolai faced lots of frustration bringing Wives to the stage, but when it premiered—in Berlin in 1849—the opera was a hit. Artistically Nicolai had reached a level that makes his sudden death only two months later (he wasn’t even 39) especially unfortunate.

Aside from its delectable overture, the opera itself is not often staged outside the German-speaking world, though it never lost its popularity there. “It’s strange that Wives hasn’t caught on more generally, because it is so accessible and charming and melodic—everything we want in a 19th-century opera,” the production’s director, faculty member John Giampietro, said in a recent interview.

Having trained as an actor and a director with a focus on the Bard, Giampietro speaks passionately about working with singers on Shakespeare: “I always remind them that this is a language we speak and understand,” he says. “His comedy is part of a tradition that would lead to Monty Python almost 400 years later. These are characters and types and behavior that are just as wacky and goofy as the things we like to laugh about. They just have to tap into that.”

But when Nicolai (or Verdi, for that matter) decided on this subject matter, they didn’t foresee contemporary phenomena like #MeToo. How can we become enthused about an already-obscure opera involving a self-indulgent blowhard who makes unwanted sexual advances?

Here, Nicolai may have an advantage over Verdi. One of the essential differences between their treatments is that Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito put the oversize knight front and center. In Nicolai’s version, the basso buffo role of Falstaff (sung by Alex Rosen) is cleverly written, but aside from a solo drinking song, his time onstage is mostly limited to Nicolai’s ensemble numbers and finales—where he is caught in the traps laid for him. The true protagonists of Nicolai’s opera are the merry women of Windsor (Christine Taylor Price, Kady Evanyshyn, and Jessica Niles). Juilliard’s production underscores the women’s prominence by setting the action in a munitions factory in 1941 Britain.

"Resonances from Weber and Mendelssohn blend enchantingly with bel canto melody and opera buffa high jinks"conductor Teddy Poll

“These places were mostly populated by female workers,” Giampietro explains. “I wanted to place our story and this action in a setting where women really had some agency and power.” In the staging, for example, Anna (Niles), a member of the youngest of the three generations in the plot-heavy Wives, not only rejects the two suitors pressed on her by her parents (Evanyshyn and William Guanbo Su) but struggles with her desire to join the women’s auxiliary air force in light of her love for Fenton (John Chongyoon Noh), a conscientious objector.

“Even in a community where women are crucial and vital to the workforce, they still have to put up with harassment,” Giampietro notes. “But the comedy and craft and the music itself shift the focus to the women.”

Nicolai’s opera, which will be performed using a piano four-hands arrangement (with some solos for piccolo and violin), was written as a German singspiel, and the vocal parts will be sung in the original German. But for the interlinking spoken dialogue, Giampietro has arranged a new text drawing on other relevant Shakespeare plays: the two parts of Henry IV (in which Falstaff figures prominently) and, for the young lovers and the forest scene, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As to whether the blend of German and English makes for an unintended irony in the World War II setting, Giampietro points out that the BBC, for example, coopted Beethoven as the symbol of victory during the war: “The Allies were at war with the Nazis and not with German culture.”

The Willson Theater turns out to be well-suited to the atmosphere for which the production is aiming. For the creative team, which has worked together for several years on various projects, Giampietro will be joined by Alexis Distler (scenic design), Audrey Nauman (costumes), and Kate Ashton (lighting). They plan to amplify the “metalindustrial feel that the space already has” into an illusion of a factory. Visually, the production should not feel like a conventional set that has been put into the space; rather, it should give the impression “that the space and architecture themselves render the idea,” Giampietro says.

Some of Wives’ loveliest music is contained in its final scene, set at night in the forest. “The factory itself will transform into a forest,” Giampietro says, “which will be a big surprise. Nicolai gets Shakespeare’s idea of the forest as an entrance into our psyches. I would say musically it does so almost more than Shakespeare himself does in this play.”

This high estimation of Nicolai’s achievement is shared by Teddy Poll, the production’s conductor: “Even though it is meant to be magical and light, the emotions are not less powerful.” Poll points to Nicolai’s skill in fusing German and Italian styles: resonances from Weber and Mendelssohn blend enchantingly with bel canto melody and opera buffa high jinks. “Nicolai was writing this in a completely different cultural moment,” he says, “but laughter is such a human quality. At times we step out of the opera and are looking at ourselves.”

Thomas May writes about music and theater and has published books on Wagner and John Adams