A Worthy Contender: Nicolai's 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'

            WOO-1517-250-sameUsually, when an opera becomes a lasting hit, it's good news for all concerned -- and especially for its composer, or at least for the composer's legacy. Yet there are times when it becomes a "good news, bad news" situation -- good for one composer, but bad for another.

            For example, there's Puccini's La Boheme, a score that quickly became one of the most popular operas of all time. That was good news for Puccini, but decidedly bad news for one of his distinguished contemporaries. While Puccini was writing La Boheme, Ruggero Leoncavallo was hard at work on his own version of the story. It never had a chance. Leoncavallo's Boheme was overshadowed, almost from the start, by the wild success of Puccini's opera.

            Something similar happened, more belatedly, to no less a composer than Gioachino Rossini. His Otello, with roots in the famous tragedy by Shakespeare, is a brilliant opera. Decades later, when Verdi came along with his own Otello, Rossini's version fell by the wayside. It may be the story of those two operas that best illustrates the fate of Otto Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor.

            Nicolai was born in the then-German city of Koenigsberg -- now Kaliningrad -- and his background, and his music, ultimately identified him as a German composer. Yet, at first, his ambitions were quite different. Nicolai's early operas were in Italian and one of the, Enrico II, was a modest hit in Vienna. So Nicolai moved to Italy, hoping to parlay that success into a lasting career in Italian opera houses.

            It didn't work out for him. In the longer run, it seems Nicolai's talent -- or at least his judgment -- wasn't right for Italian opera. At one point, he turned down a libretto called "Nabucco," ridiculing the story and saying it wasn't fit for opera. It was picked up by another ambitious young composer, Giuseppe Verdi, whose success with Nabucco made him a star. That didn't sit well with Nicolai, who described Verdi as a "pitiful, despicable composer," and called his operas "really horrible." Well, nobody's right all the time!

            Given that history, it may be just as well that Nicolai didn't live to witness the ultimate fate of The Merry Wives of Windsor, his only German opera. Based on the Shakespeare play, the opera premiered successfully in Berlin in 1849, and is still popular in Germany today. Elsewhere, though, the opera's reputation is less glossy -- thanks, at least in part, to Verdi.

            Nicolai's Merry Wives is based on the same story Verdi set, more than 40 years later, in Falstaff. That's a work now hailed not just as a great operatic comedy, but as one of the greatest operas of all time. So, when opera lovers hear the name Falstaff, it's Verdi's masterpiece that immediately comes to mind.  

            Still, Nicolai's opera deserves better. It was among the most successful of all operas during the first half of the 19th century -- a time that also found Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti hard at work. And that success was well earned. Nicolai's music has a depth of feeling that effectively conveys the inherent wisdom of Shakespeare's original -- along with an ebullient, infectious charm that goes hand in hand with the playwright's brilliant comedy.

            On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Merry Wives of Windsor from the Liège Opera in Belgium, starring bass Franz Hawlata as Falstaff, along with soprano Anneke Luyten and mezzo-soprano Sabina Willeit as Alice Ford and Meg Page -- the Merry \Wives -- in a production led by conductor Christian Zacharias.