‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’

Mason Gross sings Otto Nicolai’s best-known opera.

By: Stuart Duncan
   When Otto Nicolai took over as the principal conductor of The Imperial Opera of Vienna in 1842, his contract stipulated that he should write a German opera. He searched for a suitable comic libretto and decided finally on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. But a heavy working schedule and bouts of ill health delayed the project. He finally finished it in early 1849. The opera refused it, claiming it was a year too late; true under a strict reading of his contract.
   Nicolai was furious, quit his position in pique and accepted an offer from the King of Prussia (Nicolai had been born in East Prussia) to conduct at The Royal Opera House in Berlin. It was there that the composer’s most popular work, The Merry Wives of Windsor, was first performed in March 1849, with the composer himself conducting.
   It failed to excite the critics or audiences, though each of the three following performances drew more approval. Nicolai died in mid-May from a cerebral hemorrhage and never lived to hear the acclaim he was soon to receive.
   Sung in English, the opera is being staged by the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. The opera program was founded as a workshop project some 30 years ago, and for decades was headed by Valerie Goodall, until 1999. Her successor, David Reeves, died last year and Pamela Gilmore has picked up the reins.
   Merry Wives is a good project for the group — an excellent opportunity to showcase both the singing and comic acting abilities of the students. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to "double casting," the bane of a reviewer’s efforts since it very well may mean the talent I saw may not be on stage if you visit this coming weekend.
   The plot is one of those silly mixtures of womanly wiles, mistaken identities and buffoonery. Sir John Falstaff is pursuing two married ladies and writes them identical letters of passion and lust. In turn, the pair plan for Falstaff’s embarrassment and, if it can then be arranged, their own husband’s put-downs as well.
   The performance I attended featured Eleanor Kiel as Mistress Ford and Amelia Kubala as Mistress Page. Both sing the roles on Feb. 8. Ms. Kiel is a most talented soprano with strong acting qualities and a lovely, flexible voice that easily handles all the trills and furbelows in the piece. Ms. Kubala, an alto with natural comedic abilities, is a perfect match. The pair’s voices blend comfortably.
   In the roles of the young lovers, Margaret Vandegrift, as Anne Page, teams with Robert Kramer, as Fenton. Incidentally, he has been heard previously in such works as The Medium and Carmen. She began in a somewhat hesitant manner, then strengthened as the evening progressed. He is a fine tenor with great confidence and power. She sings the role on Feb. 8. Sadly, Mr. Kramer has finished his appearances.
   Others who impressed: Michael Dooling, as Mister Page; Michael Ashby, as a delightful Slender; Brad Hougham, as Mister Ford, and Bert K. Johnson, as Falstaff. The set design, by Jeremy Doucette, was stunning and translated easily through the various interiors, seven scenes in three acts. Tanya Guercy’s costumes were appropriate; Laura Alley’s direction was witty and light-hearted.
The Merry Wives of Windsor will be sung again at Nicholas Music Center, Rutgers University, Douglass College, 85 George St., New Brunswick, Feb. 8, 8 p.m., and Feb. 10, 2 p.m. Tickets cost $20; alumni/faculty $18; students $10. For information, call (732) 932-7511.