Now a mainstay of the city’s summer music scene, Boston Midsummer Opera every year offers a single English-language production that allows the company to highlight young talent and gives opera lovers a brief respite from the summer doldrums. Many past Midsummer productions have been of familiar repertoire, such as Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” in 2012 and Rossini’s “The Italian Girl in Algiers” in 2011.
This year, though, the company has gone after more obscure fare. It is offering three performances of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” written in the 1840s by Otto Nicolai, known today not only as a moderately successful composer but also as one of the founders of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Still somewhat popular in Europe, “The Merry Wives” is rarely staged in the States, though its sparkling overture still shows up on concert programs.
Or, as stage director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman said, “Have you ever seen this opera before? I haven’t.”
Elements of the plot, though, are familiar not only from Shakespeare’s play but also from Verdi’s late masterpiece “Falstaff.” Two women, Alice Ford and Meg Page, discover that they have received identical love letters from Sir John Falstaff. Furious, they vow revenge and hatch a plot to humiliate him, which is achieved at a nightmarish masked ball in the forest. Along the way, Alice manages to cure her own husband of an extreme case of jealousy and suspicion.
What’s notable about the opera, Ocampo-Guzman said in a recent interview, is how “female-affirming” it is, especially compared with the male-dominated “Falstaff.”
“The two wives really drive the opera forward, both musically and dramatically,” he said. Even more remarkable, he added, is a subplot involving Page’s daughter Anne, who defies her parents by spurning the suitors they approve and contriving to secretly marry her true love. Her avowal to do so comes in an aria that is one of the opera’s highlights. “Anne becomes the true heroine of the opera, by making the amazing choice of tricking her parents and marrying the man that she loves, regardless of what they think.”
Nicolai’s music is an unusual blend of German Romanticism and Italian bel canto. (He spent several formative years in Rome.) It’s in that florid, effervescent vocal writing that Ocampo-Guzman — an experienced theater director who is staging opera for the first time with this production — finds something essential about “The Merry Wives” and its musical dramaturgy.
“The most important thing in theater,” he said, “is playing the fact that you don’t know what’s going to come next. And so musically, there’s a lot of places where these three [female] roles are inventing the next moment. And they’re doing that in [the vocal] ornamentation. It’s not just coloratura for the sake of coloratura; it comes from the excitement in discovering the next dramatic moment.”
Ocampo-Guzman is fond of telling actors that he doesn’t believe in a character that exists separately from the actor’s own personality. “I play a character; when I play it, the character appears. You don’t have to make up anything — just be more of who you are.
“I tell singers: I bet most of you have had difficulty with your parents,” he continued. “Or desiring the ‘wrong’ person, or you have tried to make sure people don’t take you for granted. All the things that are happening in the opera happen to human beings all the time. So bring yourself to the singing, to the stage. Don’t create something or someone that’s far removed from you. We have all felt those very primal human emotions. We have to show them off.”