N.Y.C. Opera's bubbly 'Merry Wives' visits Los Angeles

The NEw York City Opera is in the midst of its annual latefall run in Los Angeles. Among other productions the company is offering West Coasters will be last season's controversial Kurt Weill extravaganza, "Silver Lake," and Bizet's "Pearl Fisher," which, in New York, found Diana Soviero in particular in ravishing form.

Also new to the West Coast will be the last new production the company unveiled in New York, Otto Nicolai's "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Nicolai's delightful creation is based loosely on Shakespeare's play of the same title. It is not too often heard in these parts -- one must go back to the 1950s when the New York City Opera was still at the old City Center to find any other major staging of the work.

If offers a grandiose comic bass a grand chance to show off as Sir John Falstaff. And it needs a soprano with much agility, a good clear attractive top range, and vivid stage presence for Mrs. Ford. It also requires a strong mezzo for Mrs. Page, a good singing actor baritone for Mr. Ford, promising young lyric voices for the soprano role of Ann Page and tenor Fenton. Other secondary roles test the quality of a company's supporting singers.

When properly but forth, orchestrally and vocally, "Merry Wives" sparkles and froths merrily along, with grand operatic tretment, lovely melodies, good scenes and arias. One may not leave the theater in awe of some undiscovered masterpiece, but a good performance of Nicolai's very special work should afford everyone a very good time indeed.

It is the ideal work for the City Opera to be tackling. If the first cast left something to be desired, one can still see, down the road, cast possibilities that really will show the mettle of this company handsomely.

There is nothing greviously wrong with the production directed by Lou Galtiero. John Conklin's set is a raked platform, (something of a cliche at the City Opera these days) with a three-sided box of panels that depict buildings of some vague Germanic town. The time is pushed ahead, and handsome Conklin costumes do not fit the specific characters they should be conveying. One also wonders why such scenes as Falstaff's first wooing of Alice ends up in the laundry room rather than the main reception room. And, after six scenes of Galtiero's solid if inimaginative direction and of those same panesl (the setting is changed by the adding or subtraction of furniture and hanings), one tires visually.

The seventh scene, in Windsor Park, is created by turning the panels around to reveal painted-on trees. The benefit of it all (aside from its obvious merits as a clever low-budget production) is that the singers have a fairer chance of being heard, with so much solid surfacing behind them. In the questionable acoustics at the New York State Theater, singers usually need all the help they can get!

Perhaps if the cast had been more scintillating, one would have been less concerned with the occasional visual tedium. But, as it turned out, only William Wildermann really held the stage as Sir John Falstaff. Despite a long career, he remains an imposing singing-actor. His was also about the clearest diction of the evening as well.

Carol Vaness seemed to withdraw into herself histrionically and vocally as Alice Ford, coping competently, even blandly with a sparkling role. RoseMarie Freni was not up to the demands of Mrs. Page. Stephen Dickson, in his NYCO debut role, is too young and inexperienced to adequately convey Mr. Ford's personality and character. Vinson Cole's Fenton revealed much that is good in the tenor's voice and presence, and much that still needs refining and even training. Janice Hall's intrinsically fine instrument was pushed all out of shape as Ann. Does she feel she must force to fill the theater? If so, it is a pity, for one or two notes revealed what a pretty, if so-grained, voice she possesses; the remainder, as heard here betrays the instrument at every turn.

Norman Large (Slender), Dan Sullivan (Mr. Page), and Harlan Foss (Dr. Cajus) all offered finely wrought character roles that indeed show off the strength of the company. In the pit, Julius Rudel's conducting kept things chugging merrily along -- a wonderful way to be remembered. This is his last production with the company he ran for over 20 years and proved a fine way to exit -- a substantial musical account of a work that deserves frequent encounters.

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