Otto Nicolai’s very German take on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor was a big hit in the mid-19th century but has been infrequently performed since then, largely because Verdi’s version, Falstaff, completely eclipsed it. The Italian equivalents of Shakespeare’s names – Nannetta for Ann etc – are fairly confusing but the German ones are enough to drive one distracted as Mistress Ford becomes Frau Fluth, Mistress Page turns into Frau Reich and Mistress Quickly disappears altogether. At any rate the plot is pretty much the same, with poor old amorous Sir John teased and taunted at every turn by the tiresomely vengeful wives and, ultimately, by their husbands as well.

Sky Ingram and Barnaby Rea © Clive Barda
Sky Ingram and Barnaby Rea
© Clive Barda

It does offer a number of juicy roles and is a good choice for a Guildhall performance by opera students with considerable ability, both musically and dramatically. They are over-stretched, however, by the thudding passages of spoken dialogue which unfortunately they are obliged to deliver in German. This was an obvious case for performing in English and was not helped by a stiltedly old-fashioned translation for the surtitles, clashing badly with the zippily updated action.

The plot has been transposed to an imagined Windsor of today with an ingenious set designed by Tom Rogers that shoots sideways so that the Fluth kitchen – all flowered print curtains, pink Aga with matching toaster and apple green kettle, is smoothly replaced by the Reich dining room with its steel and glass table, sludgy taupe walls and black and white photographs. The trick is repeated so that the kitchen is cleverly transformed into an over-sofa-ed sitting-room, the dining-room becomes an office and so on until everyone ends up as they should, outdoors, by a large oak tree beneath a giant moon.

Director Harry Fehr has given the singers plenty to do but the characters are not richly developed, which is probably as much Nicolai’s fault as anyone’s. He writes music that trails clouds of Mendelssohn and Weber and is lyrically romantic rather than robustly characterful, although there are some genuinely original and appealing touches in the final act in particular, where he can fully indulge in creating a haunted forest atmosphere, with an intriguing insect chorus accompanied by strange buzzing and stinging music for strings. Clive Timms, conducting, knows exactly how to support and sustain from the pit while keeping things moving along.

It is of course quite difficult for young singers, all of approximately the same age, to be convincing as, for example, each other’s parents. Mezzo Sioned Gwen Davies and bass Ciprian Droma made a pretty good fist of it however, as Frau and Herr Reich, partly by virtue of possessing in her case a really warm, settled voice and in his a fine steady resonance. Barnaby Rea was a Falstaff whose confidence increased both visibly and audibly until he effortlessly commanded attention as he led a robustly Teutonic drinking song and became genuinely touching while tormented by the good citizens of Windsor attired in the feathered, furred and spangled contents of a particularly over-the-top fancy dress box.

The Reich’s daughter, Anna, sung by Ellie Laugharne, gets a nice schmaltzy duet with her beloved Fenton, given just the right touch of ardent light lyricism by Luis Gomes and suitably delivered over a tea-room table laden with cakes and hot chocolate mit a plentiful topping of Schlag. Sky Ingram is lucky enough to own a pair of legs that start just beneath her armpits and therefore got to wear a series of outfits that showed them off to their best advantage. She is a sufficiently versatile singer to have managed some of the more challenging soprano passages while crawling across the floor in extremely flimsy underwear while waggling her rear end provocatively (the surtitles at this point, helpfully read ‘Dear sir, leave me now.’) The occasional moment of unsteadiness in her delivery could be forgiven in the circumstances.

Two comedy suitors for Anna’s favours, Spärlich and Cajus, were sung by the almost identically long and lanky Jorge Navarro-Colorado and Benjamin Appl. The former has a fine line in geekishness while the latter’s German, which is his native language so should have been comprehensible, was hampered by the fact that he was supposed to be French.

A number of the roles are double cast and many of the singers will appear again in the Guildhall’s next opera production, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in February/March 2012. These music college productions (look out for those at the Royal College and the Royal Academy as well) are always of a very high standard and offer an excellent opportunity for talent-spotting.