We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor at The Juilliard School (photo by Richard Termine)
The overwhelmingly talented students of the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts at The Juilliard School deserved the thunderous applause given at the end of their production of  Otto Nicolai's opera, based, as so many fine operas are, on a work by Shakespeare.  The Merry Wives of Windsor has produced many iterations, including Salieri's earlier Falstaff (produced recently by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble) and the subsequent Falstaff by Verdi, a staple in the canon.

Nicolai's version is quite different and filled with interesting characterizations and some of the jauntiest music we have heard in some time. The German composer, co-founder of the Vienna Philharmonic, received his musical education in Italy, and died way too young. His music shows both Italian and German influences.

We wish the term "comic opera" had not been wasted on what we would call "dramas with happy endings". Because this work is truly comic in the best sense of the word. The students, most of them at the graduate level, mined the work for its humor and delivered the lovely vocal lines with equal measure of vocal beauty. The mid-19th c. tradition of bel canto is prominent.

Nicolai himself called the work a "komisch/fantastiche Oper"; it was written in the form of a singspiel, with spoken dialogue. In this case, the spoken dialogue was delivered in English and arranged by Director John Giampietro to include lines from Henry IV (both parts) and from A Midsummer Night's Dream. The young romantic couple Anna (soprano Jessica Niles) and Fenton (tenor John Chongyoon Noh) recite to one another lines spoken by Oberon and Titania.

The production was a clever one; the action remained in Windsor but the time was updated to the 1940's and the action took place in a munitions factory which was owned by the wealthy Spärlich (tenor Matthew Pearce). Working on the bombs at opposing tables were two friends--Frau Fluth (Christine Taylor Price) and Frau Reich (mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn).

The two married women are being simultaneously "courted" by Sir John Falstaff (bass Alex Rosen in a fat suit). The major plot shows how the women get their revenge by humiliating him and how he is forgiven, once he shows remorse, in a burst of community spirit. This theme is particularly relevant today as misbehaving men are being publicly shamed and humiliated by women they have wronged.

In a plot point reminiscent of the Countess Almaviva's revenge on her jealous husband (in Mozart's Nozze di Figaro), Herr Fluth (baritone Hubert Zapiór) gets his comeuppance as well.  There is even a scene where he locks the door before looking for his wife's imagined lover.

Librettist Salomon Hermann von Mosenthal transferred parenthood of young Anna to the Reich's thereby giving them more stage time. Frau Reich has selected a suitor for Anna--Dr. Cajus (bass Andrew Munn with an hilarious French accent); Herr Reich (bass William Guanbo Su) has chosen the aforementioned wealthy owner of the factory.

Anna has a mind of her own and manages to marry Fenton, giving them some gorgeous duets. They seem to have escaped the war between the sexes.

Fleshing out the funny bones of this opera is the most delightfully melodic music. Conductor Teddy Poll kept things moving along at a brisk pace and the four-handed piano reduction was brightly performed by Chris Reynolds and Adam Rothenberg, two of our favorite pianists at Juilliard. They played behind a wall, out of sight.

It would be remiss not to mention the two lovely instrumentalists who accompanied Mr. Cho onstage--violinist Cherry Choi Tung Yeung and Lisa Choi who deftly handled the piccolo part, especially when she imitated the lark.

If we mentioned every musical and dramatic moment that tickled us, we would have to go on for hours, but let us mention just a few.  The Act I duet between Ms. Price (whom we are thinking of as Ms. Pipes) and Ms. Evanyshyn was a perfect representation of what a soprano and mezzo can do with gorgeous intertwining lines.

Mr. Rosen's "serenade" was hilariously pompous. It was quite a thrill to hear three basses in one opera. They were all different and all superb.

Dazzling our ears was Mr. Zapiór's rich and mellow baritone. He was also hilarious stomping around with his cane in a jealous rage and climbing into the laundry basket to look for Falstaff.

Ms. Price nearly stole the show practicing her seductive moves on a factory worker whose facial expressions in response were classic. Her contentious duet with Mr. Zapiór was another highlight.

Ms. Niles' interaction with Mr. Cho was as tender as their singing. Their voices were perfect for the ingenue roles they performed.

Mr. Pearce got some laughs when he agreed to marry Anna whom he thought he might "grow to love in time".  His tenor fell beautifully on the ear.

The chorus of townspeople commenting on the action was well integrated-- Khady Gueye, Brittany Hewitt, Ryan Hurley, Connor Ouly, Shereen Pimental, James Rootring and Maggie Renée Valdman. Mr. Hurley had a brief appearance as Prince Hal and Brittany Hewitt performed Mistress Quickly.

Scenic Designer Alexis Distler created a very believable munitions factory as seen in the photo above, and Kate Ashton lit it cleverly. Audrey Nauman's costumes were appropriate to the time and place, including the head scarves one sees in photos of female factory workers of the time.

As is our wont, we don't read program notes until after the performance, hoping that the production will speak for itself. This one did. We got every nuance that Mr. Giampietro was going for.

Since the performing space was flanked by audience seated on both sides of the room, we had an opportunity to observe the wide smiles on the faces across from us, whenever we could tear our eyes away from the action. It is rare to have that much fun at the opera! It was difficult to tell whether the cast or the audience was enjoying more.

If we have one beef it is only that too few people will get to see this worthy show. It surely deserves a wider audience!

As fine as the piano reduction was written and played, we would love to see this opera again with a full orchestra. Listening to the overture online, we concluded that Nicolai had a wonderful feel for orchestration.

This opera deserves to be right up there with Rossini's comedies!

(c) meche kroop

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