Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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February 14, 2017

Plucky Loveland Opera Theatre does one major opera production a year in the historic Rialto Theater in downtown Loveland.  In my experience with them, they tend to stick to lighter fare like Gilbert and Sullivan and the operatically inclined Broadway musical, Kismet.  This year they have chosen a more unusual and more involved comic work which is definitely an opera, although it has spoken dialogue—Nicolai’s 1849 opera The Merry Wives of Windsor.

LOT fills a unique niche in Colorado’s love affair with the lyric muse, which predates statehood, as Charles Ralph’s fascinating online site concerning the early history of opera in the state clearly shows.   LOT is definitely home-grown; it uses Colorado residents for its singers, or singers who have a Colorado connection.  It performs in a historic theater which is the jewel of downtown redevelopment.  LOT likes to foster talented young singers as well as some favorites.  What better place than Loveland (which reposts over 100,000 Valentine’s Day’s cards each year, hand cancelled with the city’s postmark) to celebrate the vagaries of married love (with a happy ending of course!) in Nicolai’s Shakespearean comedy about old Falstaff—“Sir John”— in love.

merry wives

Who Was Otto Nicolai?

Otto Nicolai (1810-49) was born in what was, in those days, the Prussian city of Königsberg.  His father was a composer and it was there that he received his earliest musical education, but home life was unhappy, and young Otto ran away.  He was a child prodigy, and as a young man he won a post as the house organist at the Prussian embassy in Rome, where he was exposed to Italian music at the height of the bel canto period.  HIs first five operas were all written to Italian librettos and premiered in Italian cities, including one at La Scala.  In fact, that work (Il proscritto) had been offered to the young Giuseppe Verdi, who turned it down.  Instead, Verdi took on a libretto that Nicolai conversely had rejected, which became Verdi’s first great hit, Nabucco.

In Rome, Nicolai felt a conflict between Italian lyricism and German music’s more symphonic traditions.  He wrote an essay in German comparing the two styles.  “German operatic music contains enough philosophy,” he wrote, “but not enough music;  Italian operatic music contains enough music, but not philosophy.”  By “music” Nicolai meant the lyrical quality of Italian song, and by “philosophy” the symphonic, technical strength of the German tradition.  Nicolai asked rhetorically if it would not be possible to combine those elements.  

From Rome, Nicolai went to Vienna, where his Italian opera Il templario, based on Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, caused a sensation much to the consternation of Austrian critics and landed him the job of First Kapellmeister (Director) of the Vienna Court Opera.  As a way of improving the orchestra, Nicolai founded an association to perform works of the German orchestral repertory which became the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and he began their program of regular concerts.  At one of those concerts, he championed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which at the time was considered almost unplayable.  Last summer, at the venerable Salzburg Festival in Austria, the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the world’s great orchestras, revived Il templario (which is indeed a beautiful work) with Juan Diego Florez as Ivanhoe and up and coming mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine as Rebecca.

Tiring of the constant backbiting and sniping in Vienna between the adherents of German music and Italian music, he went to Berlin, and it was there that he finally had a chance to test his desire to combine Italian lyricism with German ‘science’, in the form of Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor--The Merry Wives of Windsor.  It enjoyed a successful premiere on March 9, 1849, but Nicolai, alas, did not live to enjoy the success or see the spread of the opera to other houses.  He died of a stroke on May 11, two months after the premiere, just short of his thirty-ninth birthday.

The Opera

In Merry Wives, one can certainly hear the influence of Italian bel canto in the emphasis on graceful melody, in occasional coloratura and in the use of obbligato instruments.  But there is also a good dose of German Romantic opera, especially Weber, and particularly Weber’s Der Freischütz in the final scene by Hearne’s Oak in Windsor Forest.  Weber liked the supernatural, and in Freischütz he composed ghostly music for a scene in a haunted forest.  Nicolai borrowed the concept for the final scene of his opera, which involves scaring Falstaff with Hearne the Hunter, a legendary ghost who haunts the Forest.  

The opera, with a libretto by H.S. Mosenthal, is, of course, based on Shakespeare’s comedy of the same name.  Shakespeare, who had made the character of Sir John Falstaff a central figure in the Henry IV and Henry V plays, was, according to tradition, commissioned (ordered) by Queen Elizabeth I to write a comedy about “Sir John in love.” The slapstick comedy which resulted has sometimes been challenged as authentically Shakespearean, but it is one of the Bard’s most popular works in spite of scholars who compare it negatively to its siblings, and it is the basis not only for Nicolai’s opera, but also for Verdi’s Falstaff.

I have always felt that The Merry Wives is a hidden gem, at least outside of Germany, combining as Nicolai wanted, Italian melody and German symphonic technique.  The score just bubbles along, with one gracious melody after another, but the orchestration is fascinating too.  The overture, which is a lengthy symphonic piece built on themes from the score, is still a concert item, and the lovely tenor aria accompanied by flute and harp, “Hark, the lark sings in the grove” is probably the most famous vocal excerpt (the text is inspired,no doubt, by “Hark, hark, the lark” from another Shakespeare play--Cymbeline).  There is a classic drinking song, many lovely duets and ensembles and big concerted numbers.

The story concerns the fat, randy old “knight” Sir John Falstaff, who has set his sights on two local married women, Meg Page and Alice Ford, who give him his comeuppance by first having him dumped into the Thames River (a bleaching pond in the opera) along with the dirty linen; dressing him up like an old woman and having him beaten; and tormenting him in the ‘haunted’ forest by “Hearne’s Oak.”  The women also punish Mistress Ford’s jealous husband—and they are all outwitted by the young people, Anne Page and Fenton, who put Anne’s ridiculous suitors Slender and Dr. Caius in their place.  The two wives and the Pages’ daughter Anne triumph, and a lot of men (Ford, Falstaff, Caius and Slender) are firmly punished for their presumption and jealousy.  

The comedy is timeless and hilarious and the music has intrigued and delighted me since I picked up a vinyl recording of excerpts when I was in high school (110 years ago).  So I am very happy the Loveland Opera Theatre is reviving the work for Northern Colorado audiences.  They advertise that the time and setting will be moved from Windsor (England, not Colorado) at the time of Elizabeth I to Scarsdale, NY, in the 1950’s.  That should make the costume makers happy, and “Mad Men” fans too.  And it is to be performed in English.

The Ralphs

On opening night, February 24, two very important and dear people in the Colorado opera scene will be honored—Charles and Reta Ralph.  Charles and Reta both had long careers at Colorado State, Charles as a Professor of Biology, but their love of opera has been the hallmark of their retirement.  Charles, of course, started the Colorado Opera Network and for many years has published the weekly Opera Pronto Newsletter, which gave all of us the sense of possibilities of opera in the Rocky Mountain Region; until I read Charles’ Newsletter for the first time, I had no idea what was out there.  Sadly, Charles recently announced the end of the weekly online publication.  It was often the first thing I read on Sunday morning. 

When I first met Charles and Reta several years ago as we all emerged from the movie showing of an opera in Ft. Collins, he gave me a card and I looked up his publication on line.  I also sent him some of the opera reviews and essays that I was writing for my own amusement and for a small group of friends, and he very generously offered to distribute them too via his email list and internet site.  At first, he published only the reviews of local performances that would be of interest to Coloradoans, but later he decided to offer the pieces I wrote on far-flung performances.  I have never known if our readership was two or two-hundred, but I have had fun writing the reviews and sharing my life-long love, and I am eternally grateful to Charles for offering to give them a wide Rocky Mountain audience.

Charles and Reta’s contribution to opera in Colorado does not stop there, of course.  They have supported fledgling singers in the opera programs at the local universities for many years, and they have offered scholarships, financial assistance and encouragement.  They have taken students to see opera at local venues and movie theaters.  And of course through their generosity they have founded the Charles and Reta Ralph Opera Program at Colorado State, directed by Dr. Tiffany Blake.  The Program offers two fully staged productions each year, with orchestra.  Their involvement in furthering the culture of the Rocky Mountain region does not stop with opera.  Reta, who was born in Wyoming, is an enthusiastic supporter of the University of Wyoming Art Museum in Laramie.  Like all Coloradoans, the Ralphs love the beautiful state we live in and have gloried in the outdoors for many years.  Their work shows that the noblest culture can thrive in regions far from the metropolitan centers of New York, San Francisco and Europe. 

Opera is an equal opportunity art: singers blessed with great voices come in all shapes and sizes and from all kinds of places.  The great Leontyne Price (who turned 91 this week) was born in Laurel, Mississippi.  The fantastic Samuel Ramey hails from the small town of Colby, Kansas.  Renée Fleming was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania and  Angela Meade in Centralia, Washington.  Joyce Di Donato comes from Prairie Village, Kansas.  None of these small towns had the cultural advantages of the great urban centers, but all of these wonderful singers rose to the top of their game, in part undoubtedly, because they had people who believed in them and helped them on the way.  Many had never heard an operatic voice, much less a whole opera, in their youth.  They needed believers to point the way.  The Ralphs have served our cultural community for a long time in many ways, but I would guess that they would feel that their greatest contribution is in helping young singers find their way.  In this they have been singularly successful.

Loveland Opera Theatre will honor the Ralphs at the opening of their Merry Wives on Feb. 24, a production filled with young Colorado singers—the promise of the future for an art form that anyone reading this surely supports.

There will be six performances of Merry Wives, on 24, 25, and 26 February; and 3, 4, and 5 March.  Based on LOT’s past performances, I suspect it will be great fun, and the message is as apposite for Shakespeare’s age dominated by a great female monarch as it is for ours: may the women guide us to our better selves.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network