Online opera guide and synopsis to Nicolai’s THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
Nicolai’s comedy combines elements of Italian opera buffa and early German Romanticism. The overture, the drinking song, beautiful ensembles and the moon choir still inspire today and make it the main work of the German Singspiel of the Biedermeier period.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Als Büblein klein an der Mutter Brust Falstaff’s drinking song
♪ Horch, die Lerche singt im Hain Fenton’s Serenade
♪ Wer klopft? Quartett
♪ O süsser Mond Moon Choir
Salomon Hermann Mosenthal based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor
The main roles
Sir John Falstaff, impoverished country nobleman (bass) - Mr. Fluth, citizen of Windsor (baritone) - Mrs. Fluth, his wife (soprano) - Anna, daughter of the Fluths (soprano) – Mrs. Reich, Frau Fluth's neighbor and friend (mezzo-soprano) – Mr. Reich, her husband (bass) - Fenton, penniless student (tenor) - Dr. Cajus, academic from France (bass) - Junker Spärlich, wealthy landed nobleman (tenor)
EMI, Gottlob Frick, Fritz Wunderlich, Edith Mathis, Kieth Engen, Ernst Gutstein, Ruth-Margret Pütz, Gisela Litz, conducted by Robert Heger and the Chorus and Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera
The proximity to the Italian opera
Otto Nicolai spent fourteen years of his life in Italy, most of them as Organist of the Prussian Legation Chapel in Rome. When the 23-year-old arrived in Rome, he was sceptical about Italian music and criticised its lack of depth. He was particularly annoyed by the fashion in theatres for showing a mishmash of acts from different operas on one evening to satisfy the entertainment needs of theatre-goers. More and more he was inspired by the great emotional impact of Italian opera music and took lessons with Italian masters. Nicolai wrote four of his five operas for Italy and achieved great success there, but only his fifth, the German comedy “Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor” is still being performed today. In 1842 he left the Belpaese towards Vienna. There he wrote the opera some time after his time in Italy, but the closeness to Italian music can be felt everywhere.
As Hofkapellmeister in Vienna he was offered the opportunity to write an opera for Vienna. Nicolai subsequently lost a lot of time because he could not find a good story for the planned comedy. When he had decided on Shakespeare’s comedy, his librettist Hoffmeister left Vienna without having finished the textbook. So the deadline passed and he lost his right to a performance at the court theatre. Nicolai continued to work unwaveringly and commissioned Salomon Hermann Mosenthal, an unknown 24-year-old man of letters, to complete the libretto. A few years later he was to become internationally known with “Deborah”.
Shakespeare’s original from 1600, “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, was set to music several times before Nicolai, but none of the compositions could prevail. Nicolai had a lot of influence on the libretto. He intended to focus the plot on the intrigue of the women, abandoned Shakespeare’s first act and thus reduced the Falstaff figure to a buffo role.
In programmatic writings Nicolai spoke out for the unification of German depth and Italian lightness. He was an admirer of Mozart, who was the last to succeed in uniting the best of both worlds.
The pieces of this include many elements of Italian opera buffa (parlando style, Belcanto coloratura arias, Rossini-like crescendo ensembles) as well as of the German Singspiel (spoken dialogues, drinking song, German romantic ghost scenes). The result is a true cross-over work, which Nicolai called “a comic-fantastic opera”, which aptly describes its hybrid origins.
Premiere and review
In 1847 Nicolai accepted the position of a royal Kapellmeister in Berlin and was able to present a part of the opera in a court concert. The response was so positive that the King ordered the performance of the work, which was delayed, however, due to revolutionary developments. In 1849 the time had come and Nicolai achieved rapid success. Three months later Nicolai died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 39 and the work was subsequently hesitantly performed in other cities. Little by little it found its way into the repertoire of German-speaking theatres. Its popularity grew also outside Germany and it was subsequently translated into 20 languages. With the upheaval of the 68s, the opera fell out of the zeitgeist and has only been performed occasionally ever since.
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR ACT I
Synopsis: In the small town of Windsor between the houses of the neighbouring families Reich and Fluth.
A rousing overture, often heard in the concert hall, leads the listener into the plot. It is a tableau of romantic, intimate scenes and cheerful, sweeping images. It begins with the romantic theme of the forest scene of the third act.
Ouvertüre – Kleiber
Synopsis: Mrs Fluth has received a love letter from Falstaff. But she does not even consider of replying to the advances of the fat arrogant man. When she goes to her neighbour to tell her about it, she sees her waving a letter. They notice that the letters are exactly the same. Incensed, the two friends decide to teach the gentleman a lesson.
Mrs Fluth does not mince her words when describing Falstaff. In Italian parlando style she describes him in the recitativistic beginning as a “fat dude”, “old hose” and “ruffian”. The middle part shows a beautiful cadenza of the two voices and ends with a sweeping stretta.
Nein, das ist doch wirklich zu keck – Youngquist / Wells
Fenton wants to convince Anna’s father
Synopsis: The husbands of the two friends meet on the way to the inn. Fluth is tormented by his constant jealousy and believes his wife is making eyes at other men. Reich has other worries, three young men woo his daughter Anna. He would like to see the simple-minded but wealthy Sparsely marry her, while his wife prefers the french academic Dr. Caius. The penniless Fenton is also in love with the young woman. He desperately tries to convince Reich to allow him to marry his daughter.
Nicolai composed a melodically inspired short aria for Fenton followed by a duet in which Fenton’s rapturous melody is contrasted with the stilted rhythm of Reich.
Eure Tochter … Wenn Eure Seele je empfunden – Wunderlich / Engen
Mrs Fluth takes a decision
Synopsis: Mrs Fluth is agitated, the men think that women are easy victims. She decides to teach the knight a lesson.
For this performance Nicolai chose the classical Italian scena ed aria form (slow) Cavatina – (fast) Cabaletta and Stretta. Mrs. Fluth is honestly agitated, already in the recitative-like introduction she sings a high C in a virtuoso arpeggio. Afterwards the singer has to oscillate between serious indignation and sly craftiness, finally she betrays herself with her laughter (“John Falstaff, ah! I love you! Hahaha!”) and announces the plan to clobber the fat knight. Then the songlike piece turns into a bravura aria full of coloratura.
In the first recording we hear Lucia Popp, one of the great coloratura sopranos of the post-war period.
Nun eilt herbei … Frohsinn und Laune – Popp
The recording by Edith Mathis, a contemporary of Popp, is also convincing. She was a renowned Mozart singer with an agile, lyrical voice that was somewhat lighter and more girlish than Popp’s.
Nun eilt herbei … Frohsinn und Laune – Mathis
The “grandiose” appearance of Falstaff
Synopsis: The two women agreed that Frau Reich would secretly send a letter to Mr Fluth informing him of the rendez-vous. Falstaff sets off for Frau Fluth’s. Arriving there, the gentleman does not hesitate for a second and sets about conquering her. There is a knock at the door, Mrs Reich is at the door as agreed. Breathlessly she tells them that Mr Fluth is on his way to the house and wants to see the blood of the seducer. The self-confident cavalier suddenly becomes subdued and willingly accepts that the two ladies are putting him in the provided laundry basket. Mr. Fluth rushes in and starts looking for the adulterer.
With the first appearance of the Falstaff, Nicolai paints a wonderful picture of the wanna-be knightly lover. At first Nicolai accompanies his appearance with pompous brass sounds reminiscent of Handel. Then Falstaff sings with pompous leaps in tone and ridiculous colouratura, which contradict the stolidity of the fat gourmet.
So hab ich Dich errungen – Frick / Coertse
Synopsis: Mr. Fluth rushes in and starts searching for the adulterer.
Herein, herein! – Karl Schmitt-Walter
Synopsis: While Fluth searches the house and the servants carry out the laundry basket, the two women are having a great time. When he returns empty-handed, Mrs. Fluth plays the wrongly suspected woman, threatens to divorce him and make him the laughing stock of the town.
The finale begins with the comedic malapropism of a tragic-dramatic song, and the act concludes with a swinging ensemble.
Ach einst in jenen Tagen – Moerse
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR ACT II
Falstaff’s drinking song
Synopsis: After the laundry and Falstaff have been dumped in the river, Falstaff turns up at the inn, where he sits down with his mates. They inform him that a letter from Mrs Fluth has arrived. Falstaff’s mood suddenly improves when he learns that she is inviting him to a second rendez-vous. Gladly he sings a little song.
The drinking song is one of the most famous pieces. It begins with an overbearing flourish of the orchestra to announce the “weighty” content of the song:
Quench now the burning flame,
Drinking is not a shame.
The drinking song begins in a simple 4/8 beat, but soon Nicolai repeatedly changes the beat, perhaps to satirise the swaying after drinking.
We hear the German bass Gottlob Frick in this role. The Falstaff was one of his favourite roles, and in this aria we can admire the impressive range of his voice, which could sing both the lowest and highest notes with its powerful voice in magnificent colours.
Als Büblein klein an der Mutter Brust – Frick
The “Italian Duet” by Falstaff and Fluth
Synopsis: Mr Fluth is also sitting in the inn, he suspects Falstaff to be behind the whole story and wants to get to the bottom of the matter. He pretends to be Mr Bach and buys Falstaff a pint. When they start talking, Bach tells them that he is unhappily in love with a Mrs. Fluth and wants to ask the experienced lover for advice. The flattered Falstaff laughs and talks about her. Bach puts a bag of gold on the table and asks Falstaff to seduce her, because after that the virtuous woman can no longer spurn him afterwards. Falstaff gladly accepts the order from the alleged fool and brags about the incident the day before when he had to hide in a laundry basket. Bach is boiling with rage and almost bursts when he hears that a second rendez-vous is already planned. Now both triumph, Falstaff with anticipation – and Fluth with the joy of revenge.
After a ponderous and stilted recitative beginning, the piece develops into a lively duet in Italian style. One hears pleasurable winds reminiscent of the giggling bassoons of Don Giovanni. In the chorus “welche Hoffnung, welche Freude” (“what hope, what joy”) Nicolai uses a demisemiquavers parlando (which is much more difficult in consonant rich German) reminiscent of Rossini.
In einem Waschkorb? Ja, Sir Bach, nun denkt Euch nur! – Frick / Braun
Fenton’s beautiful serenade
Synopsis: In the garden behind the Reichs’ house. The Junker Spärlich wants to perform a serenade for Anna when he is disturbed by Dr. Cajus, who is planning the same. Fenton also had the same idea. When he appears his two rivals hide and listen to him.
With birdsong in the orchestra, Fenton sings a romantic serenade. This aria will probably remain forever connected with Fritz Wunderlich, who, with the melting of his voice and his genuine musicality, made this serenade not a sentimental melodrama, but a soulful romance.
Horch, die Lerche singt im Hain – Wunderlich
Synopsis: Anna appears, desperate that her parents do not approve of her love for Fenton.
Accompanied by a solo violin, Fenton and Anna sing a beautiful duet which, after initial doubts of the lovers, turns into a unison duet cadenza of the vow of love accompanied only by the violin.
Fenton! …. Muss ich Dir noch einmal sagen – Wunderlich / Mathis
Synopsis: She makes fun of the two lovers, who get angry and swear revenge in their hiding place.
Nicolai composed a quartet worth listening to, with a final canon reminiscent of Rossini.
Bestürmen denn die lästigen … O solche Freuer wie die zwei, hahaha! – Schreier / Donath
The furious finale of the second act
Synopsis:Falstaff goes to the rendez-vous at Mrs Fluth’s house. Soon Mrs. Reich knocks on the door and reports that Fluth is with her husband and that they are about to appear, he is frantic because he has heard about the history of the laundry basket. Since escape is now impossible, Falstaff must reluctantly throw himself into an old women’s clothes. Now Fluth appears and threatens his wife. There is a knocking. Two young men appear to pick up the laundry, Fluth triumphantly jumps on the laundry basket. But there is no seducer in the basket, Mrs. Fluth laughs scornfully at her husband who is bursting with rage. Again there is a knock. Outside are Caius, Spärlich and Reich. Together they want to search the house. Mrs Fluth calls Mrs Reich to take the old woman out of the house. Fluth is upset to see the old woman in the house and chases her out.
Falstaff’s imitation of the old woman’s voice is pure comedy and reminds us of Don Magnifico from Rossini’s Cenerentola. The end of the act is composed in form of a turbulent ensemble in virtuoso Rossini style. The quartet “Schärft die Augen! schärft die Ohren” (“Sharpen the eyes! sharpen the ears!”), composed in a spectacular crescendo style, which would also suit a Rossini comedy, ends the second act furiously.
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR ACT III
Synopsis: Anna is sitting at the lunch table with her parents and the Fluth couple. The two women have dissolved the masquerade and the Fluths have reconciled. Now they want to play a last trick on the fat knight together. They want to lure him disguised as a hunter into a nocturnal forest and frighten him masqued as spooky figures.
Accompanied by dark horns, deep flutes and bright piccolo flutes Frau Reich sings the gruesome ballad of the hunter.
Vom Jäger Herne die Mär ist alt – Schwarz
Anna’s letter scene
Synopsis: Independently of each other, Mr and Mrs Reich want Anna to marry their favourite son-in-law that night. Mrs Reich wants Anna to dress in red so that Caius, dressed in green, recognises her and Mr Reich wants her to dress in green so that Spärlich, dressed in red, recognises her in disguise. Immediately Anna realises that she can use the hiding game to her advantage and she writes a letter to Fenton.
After a recitative, a pretty soubrette aria develops.
Wohl denn, gefasst ist der Schluss – Mathis
The dreamlike moon choir
Synopsis: The forest at Windsor, the moon is rising.
This romantic piece for mixed choir became one of the most popular pieces of this work.
O süsser Mond
Falstaff meets the two women in the forest
Synopsis: Falstaff, with large antlers on his hat, appears dressed as a hunter. To his surprise not only Mrs. Fluth is there, but also Mrs. Reich. He attributes this to his powers of seduction and ensnares the two women.
Falstaffs sings a melody that we know from the overture and is accompanied by giggling brass interjections. When he meets the ladies, a comic terzetto develops with charming, operetta-like musical effects until a drum roll announces the approaching “disaster”.
Die Glocke schlug schon Mitternacht – Frick, Coertse, Rössel
The elves appear
Synopsis: When noise becomes audible, the women disappear and leave Falstaff behind, surrounded by elves and ghosts. He staggers in terror and falls down behind an oak tree.
Ihr Elfen, weiss und rot und grau
Synopsis: Not far away, Anna meets with Fenton.
A beautiful duet in an enchanted atmosphere accompanied by choir awaits the listener.
Die Menschheit schläft – Mathis / Wunderlich
The insects choir
Synopsis: Reich has approached Falstaff as the hunter Herne and threatens him with death from mosquitoes and wasps because he has disturbed the ghosts. Other disguised inhabitants of Windsor appear dressed as elves and dance around the frightened Falstaff and sting him. Attracted by the noise, the red-dressed Caius and the green-dressed Sparsely also meet. They happily take each other by the hand, each believing they have Anna with them.
Mücken, Wespen Fliegenchor
Synopsis: The dance around Falstaff becomes even wilder.
Fasst ihn, Geister, nach der Reih’
Synopsis: Now the two women come back and disclose the masquerade. Caius and Spärlich have also recognised the game of hide and seek. Anna’s parents give her the blessing for her wedding with Fenton.
The opera ends with a trio of women’s voices proclaiming the reconciliation of all participants, only Falstaff remains subdued.
So hat denn der Schwank der fröhlichen Nacht vereinet auf immer der Liebenden Hände
EMI, Gottlob Frick, Fritz Wunderlich, Edith Mathis, Kieth Engen, Ernst Gutstein, Ruth-Margret Pütz, Gisela Litz, under the direction of Robert Heger and the Choir and Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on “THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR” by Otto Nicolai.