A therapeutic way to dispel the COVID era is to laugh it off. That’s what the audience did in response to a delightful performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor by Portland State University Opera on Friday, April 22, at Lincoln Performance Hall. Artistic director Harry Baechtel noted in his opening remarks that PSU Opera had intended to perform Otto Nicolai’s opera two years ago but was thwarted by the pandemic. So, there was a lot of pent-up energy in the house, ready to let loose, and fortunately the cast triggered it all with a jolly esprit de corps.
Some of that nervous excitement must have been coursing through Chuck Dillard, because he was a last-minute replacement for an ailing Ken Selden, who would normally have conducted the PSU orchestra. Dillard, who is the music director of the show, undoubtedly knew this piece forwards and backwards because he did a marvelous job of pacing the singers and the orchestra in what could have been a disastrous train wreck on opening night.
Classified as a Singspiel because of its use of some spoken dialogue, The Merry Wives of Windsor essentially follows Shakespeare’s comedy of the same name–but with a slight modification at the end. Direction by William Mouat played broadly to the funny bone and kept the story moving forward, so that Mr. Ford finally understands that his rampant jealousy is wrong, Falstaff is mocked for his ridiculous pursuit of two married women, and true love triumphs.
It was an evening of exceptional singing led by soprano Taylor Hulett in the role of Alice Ford. Hulett commanded a stunning array of arias and recitatives and whatever came her way with elan. She also showed impeccable comic timing with a wink and a nod, making her character sparkle each time she stepped on the stage.
Bass John Gladen had a field day as the rotund and amorous Sir John Falstaff, and his voice boomed magnificently. Mezzo Ava Price created a wonderfully animated Meg Page, eliciting lots of laughter; the only thing she needed was more vocal heft in the lower register.
Tenor Reid Duhrkoop’s Fenton pleaded eloquently for the love of Anne Page, who was sung with terrific ardor by soprano Abigail Marine.
Johnny Derby scowled convincingly as the jealous Mr. Ford. Wyatt Jackson fashioned a no-nonsense Mr. Page who knew exactly which suitor was the right one for his daughter. Brandon Hilsabeck aptly conveyed the timidity of Slender, and Oliver Schulenberg hammed it up with gusto as Dr. Cajus.
As two of the suitors for Anne Page’s hand, Slender and Cajus found that they were happily married to each other in the final scene, which closed out the show with a festive can-can line that neatly involved the entire cast.
Dillard and the orchestra captured the spirit of Nicolai’s music with panache, although there were some rough edges.
The production was done in colorful traditional costumes designed by Sydney Dufka Forchielli. The scenery by Carey Wong, deftly lit by designer Peter West, was straightforward, but included a huge tree and moon that made the last act magical.
This fun-filled production showed that the opera program at PSU is alive and well. Baechtel also announced that Kelley Nassief–one of the great soprano alumna of PSU–will take over the position of Director of Opera and Opera Studios. Nassief replaces Christine Meadows, the stellar PSU mezzo who led the program from 2006 until her retirement last year. That should put the program in terrific hands for the future.
‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ runs for two more performances on April 30 and May 1. Tickets available here.