GORHAM — Every four years, the University of Southern Maine’s music school and theater department collaborate on a fully staged opera production. This is one of those years, so on Friday evening, the school raised the curtain on “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Otto Nicolai’s 1849 comic setting of the Shakespeare play of the same name, in the intimate main theater at Russell Hall. I heard the second performance, on Saturday evening; it runs through March 12.
In its original form, Nicolai’s work is in three acts, and sung in German, with new surnames for some of Shakespeare’s characters: the Fords are the Fluths, the Pages are the Reichs and Slender (one of Anne Page’s three suitors) is Spärlich. This production, directed by Cary Libkin, uses an uncredited English translation that wisely restores the Shakespearean names, and combines the second and third acts.
The story, for anyone whose Shakespeare memories are a bit dusty, centers on Sir John Falstaff – a rotund, usually inebriated old knight who regards himself as a ladies’ man – and the various plots of Alice Ford and Meg Page to give him his comeuppance after he sends them each identical love letters. Alice has the added complication of a jealous husband, and Meg and her husband are also occupied with their daughter’s romantic life, championing competing suitors (each ridiculous in a different way), while the daughter, Anne, has her own ideas.
Nicolai, of course, is not the only composer to see the possibilities here. Verdi, in his final opera, drew on both “Merry Wives” and “Henry IV” in his final opera, “Falstaff” – a much better and more enduring work, although it’s good to give Nicolai’s confection a spin now and again. Libkin’s enthusiastic young cast not only brought it to life amusingly, but also put a spotlight on some of the budding vocal power in the area.
Rachel Shukan, as Alice, and Helena Crothers-Villers, as Meg, were the standout singers in the university’s semi-staged Opera Workshop performance of Monteverdi’s “Coronation of Poppea” last year. Here they have larger and in some ways more complex roles that let them shine brighter.
Shukan uses her powerful, beautifully centered soprano to wonderful effect, and proves to be an intuitive comic actress as well. If some of her gestures – responses to Falstaff’s advances, for example – seem broader than necessary, that may be merely a misjudgment of the theater’s size. In a larger space, the same moves would project perfectly.
Alice is the ringleader here, with Meg as more of an assisting confederate, so Nicolai painted her role in subtler hues. That suits Crothers-Villers, a mezzo-soprano who brings a mature fluidity to both her singing and her acting, and whose voice is interestingly textured in its lower reaches, and clear and well-supported in her upper range.
Among the male leads, David Myers Jr. gives a superb account of Fenton, the romantic tenor role. He has a beautifully polished sound, which he uses to fine effect both in his second act aria and in his duet with Anne, a role Ida Santos enlivens with a small but attractive and precisely focused soprano.
As Anne’s other suitors, Sean Arsenault (as the frivolous Slender) and Matty Boyd (as an Oliver Hardy-like Dr. Cajus) make strong contributions, as do Thomas Hanlon as Page and Logan MacDonald as Ford. And Matt LaBerge, if slightly underpowered vocally, does an excellent job of projecting Falstaff’s cluelessness.
Libkin’s direction is straightforward and economical, and it makes good use of the space that Christopher Price’s spare but attractive sets provide. Anna Grywalski’s costumes are attractively faux-Elizabethan (but for Page’s cowboy hat, in his disguised encounter with Falstaff), and Maria A. Tzianabos supplies graceful choreography in the forest scene.
Scott Wheatley is credited with the musical direction, which presumably means the singers’ preparation, since the performance is conducted by Robert Lehmann. The Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra, a student and community ensemble, was not always equal to the intricacies of Nicolai’s score on Saturday, but Lehmann led it through a brisk reading, and the solo violin lines, played by concertmaster Victoria Hurlbert, were among the performance’s highlights.
Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: