Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, 2015
Christian Zacharias, David Hermann, Franz Hawlata, Anneke Luyten, Werner Van Mechelen, Sabina Willeit, Laurent Kubla, Davide Giusti, Sophie Junker, Stefan Cifolelli, Patrick Delcour, Sébastien Dutrieux, Patrick Mignon
Culturebox, Medici.tv - 5 February 2015
You wouldn't think that works on the lighter side of the opera/operetta spectrum would need much in the way of revision and updating for a modern audience, but it's a policy that has worked relatively well for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège over the last few seasons. Not so much perhaps for Offenbach's La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein last year which turned a military satire into a cookery game-show to no great effect, but it's the sense of fun, playfulness and ingenuity that often counts in such works and if a little tweaking here and there can help bring rare Rossini, Grétry and Offenbach to the stage, then it's well worth the attempt.
Such is the case with Otto Nicolai's Singspiel, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, a comic operetta based on Shakespeare's 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'. The Liège production takes place in suburbia in the present or sometime in the late-twentieth century, but there's not really much of an issue in terms of updating the period. The essence of Shakespeare's comedy is timeless, although it helps if, like Mozart's comedies - and this is quite reminiscent of one - it can remain in a little more of an 'innocent age' than the present day. What is more of an issue in presenting this particular work to a modern audience is, again like some of Mozart's comedies, the question of how to deal with all that spoken dialogue.
David Hermann's production deals with this very well this time. It abandons practically all of the original spoken passages that lead from one aria to the next and replaces it with a new concept entirely. After each scene, various members of the drama are interviewed (in French) on a couch by a psychiatrist, Dr. Cajus. More of a marriage counsellor than a psychiatrist perhaps, Frau Fluth (Alice Ford), for example, reveals to the doctor her plans to use John Falstaff's declaration to arouse the jealousy of her husband, as well as get one over on the arrogance of the man who has written the same letter to Frau Reich (Meg Page). Herr Fluth likewise confesses his anxieties on the couch, his paranoia about Falstaff being his wife's lover and his inability to catch him, taking his complex to nightmarish proportions.
This allows the opera to reduce the spoken exposition and find a new way of getting the underlying sentiments across to an audience while perhaps also poking a little fun at the tendency of Regietheater to open up the hood and examine the nuts and bolts that hold an opera together, as well as psychoanalytically delving into the motivations and psychologies of the characters. Is Sir John a figment of the character's imagination, invented to act out their own impulses, or is he real, as Cajus insists? There's always the risk of being a bit too clever for your own good in such a production, but the trick is not to stretch the work too far away from what makes it funny in the first place. A comic operetta might not seem like it can bear up to such examination, but this one is after all based on a Shakespeare drama.
You get a sense that the director knows exactly what makes The Merry Wives of Windsor tick, and it's Sir John Falstaff. He also recognises that in terms of the singing roles in Nicolai's drama, Falstaff doesn't really get top billing, but is more of a catalyst character than a principal one, one who by the conclusion here is indeed the "Lord of Misrule". The real drama however is going on in the marriage of Frau and Herr Fluth and in the young love of Anna Reich (Anne Page) and Fenton, with the other characters offering opportunities for additional comic routines and complications. Only Verdi, and only in the maturity of his final opera Falstaff, is really capable of tackling the magnificence of one of Shakespeare's greatest creations.
Otto Nicolai needs a little help in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the director helps him out by, counter-intuitively it seems, actually keeping Falstaff off the stage as much as possible to preserve the enigma. It's almost as if Falstaff is too big for the stage - which in more ways than one, he sort of is. In Act I, where Frau Fluth takes her flirtations a little further than you might expect, Sir John remains enigmatically behind the veil of the four-poster bed. He's not so big however that he needs to be hidden in a linen basket, but in this version - whether he really is an invention of the characters' imaginations or some other reason (health and safety maybe?) - he's carried off in a small vase. Likewise Act II's drinking songs here become a multitude of Falstaffs in the nightmare of Herr Fluth, but by Act III he gradually starts to take on a physical form and, at the same, becomes almost mythological.
Inevitably some ideas in the production work better than others. The production could do with a little more dialogue to pad out the drama, but that's hardly the main concern in Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor. The music is lovely, and that's what you really want to hear, not a lot of dialogue. The psychiatrist concept at least keeps the opera playful and concise and proves to be a reasonably good way of eliminating all those pages of German spoken text. Despite having a concept built around him not appearing often on the stage, Franz Hawlata does get across the larger-than-life nature of Falstaff across, particularly in the final Act, but it's Anneke Luyten's Frau Fluth that keeps the performance light, witty and vibrant. Christian Zacharias conducting and a terrific performance from the Wallonie-Liège orchestra ensures that the work positively sparkles.
Links: Medici.tv, Culturebox