Grimeborn Opera 2023 – Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor – Queer Voices

The Merry Wives of Windsor – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Salomon Hermann Mosenthal based on the play by William Shakespeare [sung in Norwegian; dialogue spoken in English with English surtitles]

Falstaff – Mae Heydorn
Mrs Ford – Therese-Angelle Khachik
Mrs Page – Maria Dale Johannessen
Mr Ford – Patrick Egersborg
Fenton – Eldrid Gorset
Anne – Vilde Johnsbråten
Mr Page – Mathilde Hofvid Borgen
Dr Cajus – Marte Arnesen
Slender – Mathias Vistnes

Kelvin Lim (piano)

Lars Harald Maagerø & Kristin Lundemo Overøye – Directors
Knut Eirk Jensen – Musical director
Fridtjof Brevig – Costumes & Set
Stuart Glover – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 20 July, 2023
Venue: Arcola Theatre, Dalston, London

Queer Voices (Skeive Stemmer) is Norway’s first and only ‘queer’ opera company, which aims to reinterpret the operatic repertoire in line with untypical, non-binary angles on gender, sexuality and power relations. Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor – in Otto Nicolai’s version of it as a German Singspiel (1849) – with Sir John Falstaff as its principal character, one of the most butch and apparently unquestioningly masculine in all literature, seems an unlikely work to be queered.

Perhaps it was precisely that fact which was taken as a challenge, and Lars Harald Maagerø and Kristin Lundemo Overøye’s production proves to be an effective twist on the scenario. Instead of exactly underscoring the persona of the old knight as a typical male buffoon, or straightforwardly lampooning his lustful antics, he is played by Mae Heydorn and sung at alto register, like a sexually indeterminate cabaret star with a moodily low vocal pitch. Rather than a sexual predator, Falstaff becomes a gender non-conformist, who is pilloried in the final scene in Windsor Forest by the judgemental, disapproving locals for his refusal to adopt conventional codes of behaviour and personality. (As none of the characters fall within obvious, straightforward categories of male or female, it is perhaps preferable to adopt the pronoun ‘they’ in each case. Incidentally, this adaptation does restore the English names of the handful of characters that were changed to German ones in Nicolai’s work.)

As a queer version of the narrative there is a fair amount of make-up, face paint, glitter and extravagant outfits. A core, basic set of two covered circular tables also recalls a jazz club or cabaret atmosphere, especially in this intimate performance, effectively in the round, at the Arcola Theatre. The drama is executed with vivid, outlandish gestures, and effusive singing that is often boldly declaimed, overlaid with vibrato and swooping between notes. It won’t be to all tastes, but it is carried through with impressive élan and consistency, even if the humour of the text as delivered feels a little turgid and falls flat at times; and the way the ending is pulled off with the victimisation of Falstaff followed by their reconciliation with the locals rather awkwardly dissipates the opera’s climactic frenzy as Nicolai works up the fast theme of the Overture repeatedly. Otherwise the irreverent, queer dimension and histrionics work well in making the opera more appropriately like a farce, somewhat in line with 18th century opera buffa, rather than a more sentimental comedy of the mid-19th. And such an upending of the original scenario perhaps works best with this operatic treatment of Shakespeare’s play (compared with those by Salieri, Verdi, or Vaughan Williams) as its three Acts are so neatly structured to end with Falstaff in disguise or concealment of some sort which therefore seems positively to invite this examination and questioning of personal identities.

Underpinning the additional musical adornments (mentioned above) which make this a more queerly vocal rendition are the singers’ solid, conventional musicianship. Mae Heydorn reveals an aptly, seductively dark range of colours as this cabaret or musical-style Falstaff, contrasting strongly with Therese-Angelle Khachik’s considerable calibre as a dramatic soprano and formidably flouncing Mrs Ford when they lure Falstaff on. As the almost cuckolded Mr Ford, Patrick Egersborg – clad in pencil skirt and cowboy boots, then high heels, below his double-breasted jacket and sparkling pink handbag – gives a melodramatically dyspeptic account.

Mathilde Hofvid Borgen and Maria Dale Johannessen provide a calmer wit and alacrity for Mr and Mrs Page, the former achieving a strikingly lucid and low female register for what is originally a baritone role. Conversely Fenton is taken up from a tenor part to a soaring soprano register in Eldrid Gorset’s confident interpretation of this lover of Anne Page, while Vilde Johnsbråten in that role sounds and appears as the most nearly typically feminine here in a couple of notably lyrical numbers.  Anne’s two other suitors, Slender and Dr Cajus, receive playful renditions by Mathias Vistnes and Marte Arnesen.As ‘musical director’ Knut Erik Jensen’s efforts must have been confined to preparing the musicians prior to performance, as the only player on the stage, apart from the singers, is Kelvin Lim. He maintains a dutifully brisk grasp of the solo piano accompaniment, always deferring to the singers, and never dominating or hounding them. Cheerful interaction between the performers, and a vivaciously radical reimagining of the opera offers the chance for a stimulating re-engagement with a work not now often seen in the UK.

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