Well, it needs to reassert itself. In the US, at
least, and probably anywhere outside the German-speaking world,
Nicolai's vibrant, tuneful score has taken a very distant backseat to
Verdi's late masterpiece Falstaff, adapted from the same Shakespeare play (not one of his most admired, either).
By putting the focus on Sir John from the first scene, Verdi and Boito
loosened an undercurrent of human frailty that deepens the sometimes
rough comedy of Shakespeare's original. Nicolai worked with librettist
Hermann Salomon Mosenthal, and they start and end with the merry wives,
with Falstaff making a grand entrance late in act one. In its way, this
makes the comedy palatable, as the sheer outsize humanity of Verdi and
Boito's Falstaff can evoke — as it does in your reviewer — feelings of
antipathy for the bougie hausfraus who dump a foolish old man in a
river and conspire to assault him with sticks. The German rendition
focuses on good-hearted hijinks, in a lighter comic vein.
Nicolai's score has met a fate not unlike many of Rossini's early
comedies — it is best known for its overture, which sparkles with the
opera's most melodic material, tunes that reappear in act three, giving
a nice balance to the composition. Falstaff gets a rousing drinking
song, Fenton a most delightful romanza, and the whole opera is
tastefully peppered with duets, trios, and other ensembles. In other
words, the music elicits smiles as much as the story. This opera needs
to be staged more often.
Capriccio's recording has a fine cast. Juliane Banse, Andrea
Bönig, and Regina Klepper sing the title roles with good humor,
and the fine bass Franz Hawlata does a lusty take on Sir John. Dietrich
Henschel, a solid if unexciting baritone, sings Herr Fluth (Ford, in
the Verdi opera). As the young lover of Herr Fluth's daughter Anna,
Jörg Dürmüller makes no particular impression.
The problem for this worthy set? The existence of a 1963 recording on
EMI, with a cast including Gottlob Frick, Edith Mathis, and most
damaging to the Capriccio set in the field of comparison, Fritz
Wunderlich as Fenton. Just to hear his exquisite "Horch, die Lerche
singt im Hain!" makes this older set eternally fresh.
The EMI set also includes the spoken dialogue, separately tracked for
easy skipping for the dialogue-phobic. Capriccio spares such souls the
effort by omitting the dialogue altogether, shaving about 10 minutes
from each disc's running time. Helmuth Froschauer leads the Cologne
Radio orchestra on the Capriccio set, and ably, but not quite with the
verve of Robert Heger and the Munich ensemble on the EMI.
So go for the EMI set if the opera appeals, but if can't be found, the
Capriccio recording certainly offers a commendable version of this
regrettably under-performed work.
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy