Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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Since I first discovered Loveland Opera Theatre, I have thought that it is community jewel hiding in plain sight—the site of that sight being the Rialto Theater (spelled with -er) in downtown Loveland, another community jewel with great sight lines and decent acoustics and intimacy.  It presents problems for staging an opera, with a small stage and an even smaller orchestra pit, but somehow Loveland Opera Theatre (spelled with -re, but we will just call it LOT from now on) manages to stage a full-scale opera there every year.  This year’s opera is Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, in my opinion another jewel which has been hiding in plain sight (or perhaps ‘plain ear’) for a long time—since 1849 to be exact.  It was written to a German text by H. S. Mosenthal, and the Germans know it well, but outside of Germany it is a rarity, although the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music did it two years ago.

Merry Wives is an endless string of melody and singable tunes, punctuated in the original German version by a lot of spoken dialogue; it is a singspiel, that form of musical comedy in German, of which The Magic Flute is the most famous exponent.  Fortunately, LOT’s version kept the melody and cut most of the spoken dialogue, and what was left was in English.  How it has escaped being better known is indeed a question!  Probably because it sets the same Shakespeare play which is the basis of Verdi’s Falstaff.  Once Falstaff was premiered ( in 1893), Nicolai’s work was pretty much forgotten, at least outside of Germany.

It is great comedy about the “fat knight” Sir John Falstaff, and his attempts to woo two married ladies—Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford.  He sends the two neighbors and friends the same love letter proposing a rendezvous.  The women are at first shocked at being so blatantly propositioned by the sleazy, fat old drunkard, and then they determine to punish him for his effrontery.  Each of the three acts centers around one of their “punishments”:  in Act I Falstaff is put in a laundry basket and thrown in a pond to escape the jealous rage of Mrs. Ford’s husband; in Act II, also to escape Ford, he is dressed up as an old woman and beaten; in Act III, he goes to Windsor Forest at midnight to rendezvous with Mrs. Ford and instead is tormented by almost everybody in town dressed up as demons and sprites.  There is a subplot too, of the Pages’ daughter Anne, who is in love with the penniless Fenton; the young people out with her parents who want her to marry the well-to-do Dr. Caius or a suitor named Slender.


In LOT’s production, the Director, Tim Kennedy, updates the action to the 1950’s and moves the locale from Windsor, England, to Scarsdale, NY.  The women are stay at home mothers and wives with bouffant hairdos and skirts flared out by numerous crinolines.  They wear neat hats (can you remember when women wore hats?!).  The men are Mad-Man types (they wear hats too), and Falstaff is an old roué who lives at the bar in the local country club.  It all works very well, and if you like costumes from the Eisenhower era, you will love Davis Sibley’s costumes.  Everyone, including the 32 chorus members (including six children), gets their own special period costume—among the nosy neighbors, there is a Pan Am stewardess (not flight attendant!), a pilot, and a wimpled nun who carries a ruler to slap across wayward knuckles.  The elaborate set (for a small company) by Noel Johnston gives us Norman Rockwell—the front yards of two Scarsdale houses, circa 1955.  All of the action takes place there, which is only a minor problem when it is obvious that Falstaff could escape marital wrath by running down the street, something he could not do so easily if LOT had had the money for an indoor set as well.


I have to say that Kennedy’s attention to detail and ability to move the protagonists and the large crowds around the small stage are nothing short of miraculous.  Big companies in big cities could hire him with confidence!  There were dancers too, in Act III, choreographed by Sarah Wilhelm, and the 15-piece orchestra managed to reproduced the sound of a much larger Romantic band most of the time.  Conductor Adam Torres kept it all together and moving along at a fine pace; I thought he did a splendid job.


Alice Ford is the central figure among the ladies, with the most difficult music, and Phoenix Gayles was just super, sailing through her first act aria with all the coloratura and high notes intact and right on; she acted very believably too.  Christina Hazen, a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado, played her mezzo counterpart, Mrs. Page; she too is a fine singer and actress, and excelled in the “Ballad” where she recounts the tale of the ghostly figure Herne the Hunter in Act III.  Bethany Smith played pretty Anne, the daughter in love with Fenton, and was particularly good in her Act III aria, averring her determination to marry Fenton.  The men were generally good too—particularly tenor Nathan Snyder, who sang the role of Fenton.  His “Romance,” really a serenade, “Hark, the lark” (sorry—I don’t have access to the English translation used in the production) is the single most beautiful aria in the work, and one of my personal favorites in German opera.  With birds twittering in the orchestra, Fenton’s aria has cruelly high tessitura and it is sung slowly, a recipe for off-notes; Snyder not only sang it well, he made it lovely.  Falstaff (Joe Massman) was surprisingly not very fat and not very old, but his low-lying drinking-bout song was one of the highlights of the production.  It was one of the best translations from the Elizabethan era to the Mad-man martini-drinking era, too, although Falstaff seemed content with anything in a liquor or wine bottle.  Schyler Vargas and Trevor Halder rounded out the principal males as Mr. Ford and Mr. Page respectively.  Vargas was especially funny in his Act II buffo duet with Falstaff.  Robert Hoch and Sean Stephenson played the two silly suitors of Anne, Dr. Cajus and Slender.  The fine chorus sang well too, best in their beautiful opening to Act II, “O lovely moon, o kind night.” 

In short—a fun evening in the theater, confirmed by lots of laughter and applause.  There are three more performances next weekend (March 3, 4, 5) plus a shortened performance for school children as part of LOT’s educational outreach.  LOT performs in English, but there are projected super-titles too, so the words are easy to follow.  If you want to forget the tensions of the world for a couple of blessed hours and laugh while listening to beautiful, melodious music, go.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network


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