In 2009 in the courtyard of Weikersheim Palace I saw three performances, with somewhat different casts, of the German opera The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai (1810-1849), based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
This is a light opera which used to be extremely popular in Germany and Austria (especially in the second half of the nineteenth century) but is no longer played very often, the main reason being that Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, tells the same story, but better. The really brilliant parts of Verdi’s opera are just spoken monologues in Nicolai’s version — and Nicolai left out the character of Mrs. Quickly, which is really a shame, because she is one of Shakespeare’s funniest and quirkiest creations.
Since Otto Nicolai died shortly after the world premiere of The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1849, he never knew that his opera would later be upstaged by Verdi’s Falstaff, which didn’t appear until forty-four years later in 1893.
I don’t know if Nicolai and Verdi were personally acquainted, but in the early 1840s they were both living in Milan, where Nicolai at first was more successful with his operas than Verdi was. Verdi’s big breakthrough came in 1842 with his opera Nabucco — using a libretto which had first been offered to Nicolai, who turned it down. Nicolai was not a big fan of Verdi’s operas after that, and he soon left Italy in a huff.
For those who know Verdi’s Falstaff or Shakespeare’s original play, I should point out that Nicolai’s Anna Reich is the same as Shakespeare’s Anne Page and Verdi’s Nannetta, the young girl who is in love with Fenton (same name in all three versions).
In Nicolai’s version Anna Reich is the daughter of Herr & Frau Reich (= Mr and Mrs Page) instead of Herr & Frau Fluth, who correspond roughly to Mr and Mrs Ford in the Shakespeare and Verdi versions. (Any questions?)
But Falstaff is Falstaff in all three — a fat middle-aged knight who still fancies himself an irresistible lover and sends identical love letters to Frau Fluth (=Alice Ford) and Frau Reich (=Meg Page), who with the help of their friends succeed in teaching him a lesson by the end of the play or opera.
The young singers in Weikersheim obviously had a good time with Nicolai’s opera, and I enjoyed seeing it three times — but ideally you should see Nicolai’s version first, before you know Verdi’s. Otherwise you’ll be disappointed at the beginning of the second act when Falstaff climbs dripping wet out of the Thames and merely delivers a spoken monologue instead of singing the brilliant music that Verdi later wrote for this scene.
And the same happens at the end of the third act, when Falstaff has been thoroughly humiliated but still maintains his dignity and earns the grudging respect of the townspeople. Nicolai again lapses into spoken monologue at this point, unlike Verdi, who ends with a fugue on the text Tutto nel mondo è burla (“All the world’s a joke”).
The orchestra for The Merry Wives of Windsor in Weikersheim was the RIAS Youth Orchestra under the direction of Peter Kuhn. This was surprising (at least to me) because RIAS used to be a radio station in Berlin called “Radio in the American Sector” — and since there is no longer any American sector in Berlin I assumed there was no longer any RIAS.
It turned out that the radio station RIAS was phased out in 1994, but its Youth Orchestra kept on going for another eighteen years, until it finally had to disband in 2012 for lack of adequate funding. In 2009 the RIAS Youth Orchestra was still going strong and included young musicians from about twenty nations.
My photos in this post are from 2009. I revised the text in 2019.
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