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Otto Nicolai: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor
25 May 2006

NICOLAI: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor

Klaus-Edgar Wichmann, in the booklet essay to this Capriccio recording from 2002 of Otto Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, describes the work as having "asserted itself in the opera repertoire for more than a hundred years."

Otto Nicolai: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor

Juliane Banse, Regina Klepper, Franz Hawlata, Heinz Zednik, WDR Rundfundorchester Köln, Helmuth Froschauer (cond.)

Capriccio 60 094 [2CDs]

$16.99  Click to buy

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.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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