Notes and Editorial Reviews
Die lustige Weiber von Windsor
Bernhard Klee, cond; Kurt Moll (
); Bernd Weikl (
); Siegfried Vogel (
); Peter Schreier (
); Edith Mathis (
); Hanna Schwarz (
); Helen Donath (
); Deutsche Op Berlin Ch; Berlin St Theater O
BRILLIANT 94702 (2 CDs: 142:29)
Here is a conundrum: how does a serious-minded, almost neurotic German conductor and composer write one of the jolliest comic operas of all time? To twist the words of The Shadow, “Who knows what mirth lies in the hearts of men?” Otto Nicolai, by all the accounts I’ve read, was about as jolly as your average CPA, a deadly serious musician committed to raising the standards of orchestral playing close to the level we enjoyed in the 20th century (he founded the Vienna Philharmonic), and was not gentle in his methods, yet he turned out this comic opera: a piece far better in both its music and its projection of humor than Weber’s
The Barber of Baghdad.
However he did it, he is to be congratulated, because
The Merry Wives of Windsor
practically bubbles over with mirth. It is the German equivalent of
I would have said
but only parts of Verdi’s amazingly complex score rise to the comic heights of
Die lustige Weiber.
Comparing Nicolai’s opera to Verdi’s is like comparing Rossini’s
But as in the case of
transferring the jollity one experiences on the opera stage to the recording studio is not always possible. And as I’ve said on many occasions, having an all-star cast in the studio does not guarantee a really lively performance. Happily, we have here a number of German singers of the 1970s (this recording was made in 1976) as well known for their acting and interpretive skills as for the quality of their voices: Edith Mathis (a graduate of Rolf Liebermann’s fabulous Hamburg Opera ensemble of the 1960s), Bernd Weikl, Siegfried Vogel, and Peter Schreier, in addition to singers whose voices were always good, Helen Donath and Kurt Moll. Yet as usual, the basic feeling, tempos, and phrasing of any opera performance generate from the podium, not the stage, and as in the case of Otmar Suitner in Schubert’s
Alfonso und Estrella
(see my review elsewhere in this issue), Bernhard Klee outdoes himself. Even in the Overture, the orchestra practically bubbles over with humor, and the only time this mood lets up is in the spoken dialogues and Fenton’s romantic aria. What a pity that Nicolai didn’t set the dialogues to music as well! But alas, one cannot always have everything one wants.
And what makes the music of
so good? One example among many is the trio for Mr. Page, Slender, and Dr. Caius in act I. Nicolai was a master of harmonic modulation and counterpoint, and he used both in novel and subtle ways in this opera, following closely the rhythmic patterns of the words just as Rossini did in Italian. Nicolai collapsed and died of a stroke only two months after the opera’s premiere, thus we should be grateful we have it. The humor in the music, somehow, magically, never sounds forced or artificial; it always arises naturally from not only the comic situation but also from the musical structure.
I can’t recall another recording of this opera as good as this one, though the Decca version conducted by Kubelík (from 1977) comes close. As it happens, I listened to this the day after I suffered through the Ohio Light Opera Company’s poorly-recorded and dully-conducted recording of
The contrast was startling in every respect, but primarily in the difference of energy coming from the podium. Falstaff’s entrance in the last scene of act I is a perfect example of what I mean. Kurt Moll possessed one of the richest, roundest bass voices in history, but was usually about as funny as a bowl of oatmeal. I can’t say that he had me rolling in the aisles, but thanks to prodding from Klee’s conducting, in this performance he at least
to sound funny, and yes, he occasionally succeeded. Well, of course Falstaff is one of those mock-serious roles;
takes himself seriously, as both knight and lover; it’s only the
who think he’s a scream, so a semi-serious interpretation of the character works in context. And in this remarkable scene, running over 18 minutes, Nicolai builds his comic situation, musically, with as much skill as Mozart did in the second act of
Le nozze di Figaro.
The finale of this scene has the notes dancing, metaphorically, on the head of a pin. I still think Verdi outdid Nicolai in his musical setting of the goblins and spirits in the final act of the opera, but this one has its own magic. Listen, particularly, to the way Nicolai uses the motor rhythms of the “goblins” to launch into an ensemble as beautifully woven together—harmonically as well as melodically—as any in the entire history of music. It’s almost symphonic.
Weikl is heard here in his early years, when he was noted as a singer of Mozartian and comic roles, before he graduated to such heavier parts as Hans Sachs. Schreier sounds just a bit drier of voice here than on the Schubert opera mentioned earlier and, perhaps due to this, a bit less involved with the character. But really, this is a performance that flies from first note to last, and everyone seems to be having a good time. Libretto? Go online for it at the Brilliant Classics web site. Sorry about that. Otherwise, highly recommended.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor by Otto Nicolai
Hanna Schwarz (Mezzo Soprano),
Peter Schreier (Tenor),
Kurt Moll (Bass),
Edith Mathis (Soprano),
Bernd Weikl (Baritone),
Karl-Ernst Merker (Tenor),
Kurt Ludwig (Tenor),
Siegfried Vogel (Bass),
Claude Dormoy (Baritone),
Helen Donath (Soprano),
Helmuth Strassburger (Spoken Vocals)
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra,
Berlin State Opera Chorus
Written: 1849; Berlin, Germany
Date of Recording: 1976
Length: 142 Minutes 30 Secs.
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