The Boston Midsummer Opera gave the first of three performances of Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor Wednesday night at the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University (related article here). While the production lacked some of the polish and grandeur of the larger Boston companies, it did provide a light and fun evening of entertainment for a youthful midsummer’s audience.
Nicolai’s work is, after all, a light entertainment that focuses on the female protagonists, Alice Ford and Meg Page. This approach has since, and understandably, been overshadowed by Giuseppe Verdi’s masterful Falstaff. This is because Nicolai’s work reduces the characterization of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s best and most complicated characters, whom Harold Bloom has described as “…the most intelligent man in all of literature,” in order to emphasize the simple wit and wrath of two scorned wives. On Wednesday, this weakness was made even more evident by Jason Budd’s hilarious performance of the character, providing Falstaff with booming voice, a dark wit and infectious charisma that dominated the stage.
This is not to say that the other performers did not do Nicolai’s score justice. Music director and conductor Susan Davenny Wyner clearly recognized the basic character of Nicolai’s score as an ensemble piece and the duets that ground each act were remarkable, each one better than the last. Martha Guth (soprano) gave a sensitive performance that appropriately reflected Alice Ford’s cynical wit. She was well paired with Stephanie Kacoyanis (contralto) as Meg Page, her partner in crime. Their cadenza at the end of their first act duet was a delightful opening number for the evening. Dean Elzinga’s Mr. Ford brought just enough gravitas to make him a challenge to Falstaff, but not to his own wife.
As idealistic youths and Shakespeare’s ingenious foil to all of the worldly comedy, Sara Heaton (soprano) as Anne Page and Alex Richardson (tenor) as Fenton were ideal. Their second act duet was stirring, while Heaton’s third act aria was downright enchanting. Richardson’s clear voice with its vibrant upper register, coupled with his understated but powerful acting, brought to the fore his character’s primary tension, a confidence built on naiveté. Finally, as Anne’s other courters, Dr, Cajus’s (Stephen Humeston, Bass-baritone) strange violence and accent was balanced well by Slender (Sean Lair, tenor) who was just a little light in his purple loafers. Indeed, Elisabetta Polito’s costume design deserves special mention, from Cajus’s top hat, to Falstaff’s V neck T-shirt, if the costumes weren’t historically appropriate, they were nevertheless spot-on.
The scenery was simple, rustic, and most importantly, it stayed out of the way. John Moriarty’s translation of the libretto was as good as can be expected, and the little snippets of contemporary humor (“…and that’s perfectly legal in New England!”) were welcome. The orchestra seemed a little jittery early on, particularly in the overture, but as the evening progressed, they hit their stride and shined in the magically sylvan third act finale. Indeed the third act was positively delightful when the production spilled into the audience and the elves, played by dancers from the Cental Mass Dance Academy, gracefully escorted Titania and Oberon to the stage (and Falstaff’s terror).
Boston Midsummer Opera’s project of bringing affordable opera in English to the Boston area is admirable. The value of the production in and of itself makes for a worthy evening of entertainment. However, the fact that the number of boomers in the audience was nearly balanced by the number of millennials is indicative of success in a much more important area, the transmission of Boston’s rich cultural heritage into the future.
BMO is producing the Merry Wives of Windsor twice more: on Friday the 26th and a matinee on the 28th.