GSMD Opera Studies course brought Nicolai’s under-performed but splendid take on the Falstaff tale, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, to the Barbican this week.
Harry Fehr's production places Shakespeare's Falstaff story in a 1940s household setting, contemporizing it in much the same vein as Miller's recent Elixir of Love for ENO. Right from the overture there is an almost overwhelming attention to detail: the houses of the Merry Wives are captured in hectic morning routines littered in toasters and cafetieres. The update works well, pleasingly illustrating the mundane everyday life which sets these quick-witted women’s minds wandering, and leads them to create a bit of mischief. As it’s an operetta, it also intersperses spoken dialogue with music, which alongside these little humorous touches gives it an episodic, sketch-like feel well suited to its young performers.
Sky Ingrham stole the show as the naughty red-head Frau Fluth, whose vocal and physical characterisation was enjoyably provocative. The robust and comedic physicality of Barnaby Rea, as Sir John Falstaff, was another highlight: his Falstaff was full of bravado with an unending repertoire of slapstick, not the least impressive of which was somehow managing to become tangled up in his own braces mid seduction.
Despite the fact that it comes from the German Romantic tradition, Nicolai's score is deceptively versatile. Its sweeping melodies are then lightened by a classical approach to form and texture; perfectly suited to capture both the mock gravitas and Mozartian play the story deserves.
Unlike Verdi's Falstaff, which tells the same tale, one of the most pleasing aspects of Nicolai's version is the final Act. Here the women's mischief escalates rather abruptly from pranks involving laundry baskets, to ensnaring Falstaff in a sinister midnight charade in the forest. In one sense it’s simply another naughty trick, but all the protagonists (due to an amusing subplot involving Frau Reich's daughter's marriage) must find in the forest a place where quarrels and injustices are put aside. There are no Malvolios here - everyone’s a winner. Both the energy of the performers and the jubilance of the score thoroughly vindicated this, and what the story lacked in subtlety, the delivery made up for in warmth.