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Otto Nicolai: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor
12 Jun 2009

Otto Nicolai: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor

Otto Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor belongs to that somewhat purgatorial group of operas best remembered only for their overtures.

Otto Nicolai: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor

Juliane Banse, Anna Korondi, Annette Markert, Markus Eiche. Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, RO München. Ulf Schirmer, conducting.

CPO 777 317-2 [2CDs]

$33.99  Click to buy

Rarely performed outside Germany, the opera begins with a tuneful, energetic overture which remains a staple of classical radio stations — but then again, those aren’t in the best health either. CPO does its part to remind the opera-loving public of Nicolai’s last and greatest work by issuing this well-recorded live performance from February 2007, with Ulf Schirmer leading the Bayerischer Rundfunk forces at the Prinzregententheater in Munich.

A comparison of Verdi and Arrigo Boito’s take on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and that of Nicolai and his librettist (the wonderfully named Salomon Hermann von Mosenthal) demonstrates the difference between genius and talent. Falstaff begins with the title character, putting him on stage in three full dimensions, in a way that does tribute not only to the role in this late, little respected comedy but as well to the Falstaff of the Henry plays. Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor follows the play more closely, with Sir John not even entering until act two and having relatively few musical highlights to himself. As a result, act one drags, with little of the memorable melodic material from the overture appearing. Act two is more lively, and act three has some wonderful moments, including (at last!) some development of the overture’s best tunes. Nonetheless, Nicolai’s music remains comfortably familiar but rarely inspired, whereas Verdi’s late score burns and bustles with invention.

As other CPO recordings of his have shown, Schirmer is an excellent conductor, rhythmically spry and alert, with few if any lapses in tension. The cast, with one exception, sings characterfully. Verdi kept the name Ford, but for some reason Nicolai has Sir John Falstaff involved with Herr and Frau Fluth. Markus Eiche and Juliane Banse take the latter roles; Eiche has a handsome baritone that suggests he would do well in some of the Italian repertory’s great roles, while Banse uses the steely nature of her upper range to give her character an edge appropriate to the character’s female resourcefulness. Alfred Reiter impersonates Falstaff, and although the role offers nowhere near the opportunities for greatness that it does in Verdi’s opera, Reiter fills the role’s requirement of comic bluster. As the young lovers Anna and Fenton, Anna Kornodi sings with appealing sweetness, but Ferdinand von Bothmer’s tenor wavers and strains too much of the time.

Unfortunately for Bothmer, a comparison to the 1960s’ EMI set really puts him in the shade, as Fritz Wunderlich sang Fenton with an outpouring of both taste and beauty that makes Fenton’s act two romance sound like a greater aria than it probably is. With a cast also featuring Gottlob Frick and Edith Mathis, that EMI set should be first option for anyone interested in the opera. These days it may be hard to find, however, and this CPO set, in excellent live sound despite a couple of instances of audience noise, does a fine job overall of bringing some life to Nicolai’s otherwise dormant creation.

Chris Mullins

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