interview of the month
October 2019

»The Merry Wives of Windsor« – interview with Director David Bösch

On October 3rd »The Merry Wives of Windsor« will be premiering at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. 170 years ago, in March 1849, the same venue provided the setting for the world premiere of this »comic-fantastical« opera penned by Otto Nicolai, the court kapellmeister. We spoke with director David Bösch about his staging of Shakespeare’s material.

What is it about the »Merry Wives« that attracts you?

Any work that’s based on a Shakespeare play is a thing of wonder, because you have separate worlds shamelessly fusing with each other. And that is true in a very special respect in the case of this opera, which, like the work it’s based on, is not staged overly often. We’re presented with three worlds. Firstly, there’s the bourgeois world of the middle-aged couple, Herr and Frau Fluth, where everything that could possibly happen at this stage in life is rendered comedically onstage. Then we have the lyrical, high-romantic world of the young couple, Fenton and Anna, who believe, like Romeo and Juliet, in true love and the absoluteness of feelings and rebel against the plans that their parents have for them. And finally, there’s the third, buffo world of Falstaff, frivolous and salacious.

Humour, pragmatism, high-romantic love and a spirit world that is not strictly off-limits to mortal beings. All these components are also present in Shakespeare’s much better known »A Midsummer Night’s Dream«. Are the plays related?

If you look at those components, yes, they’re both classic Shakespeare through and through. This blend of humour, sadness, levity and philosophy has always fascinated me, and it’s reflected in the music, too. Otto Nicolai took the multifarious influences of his age and of a bygone era and fused them to produce a shimmering, highly unusual work.

Mozart’s shade and Mendelssohn’s esprit?

Some people say, »Oh, he does this a little and that a little…«, but Nicolai combined many elements in a way that was creative and unprecedented. That may be what links him musically to Shakespeare’s mise en scène. They’re quite alike in that respect. That’s probably why »Merry Wives« is Nicolai’s most famous work.

Your directorial work is rooted in plays. How did you have to adjust when you began working with music as an intrinsic part of your job?

It depends on the work. The set of conceptual and intellectual tools that you need for »Nabucco« is different from the tools required for a Nicolai comedy. My work at an opera house on a day-to-day basis is outwardly more structured than at a theatre – if you consider things like the mandatory breaks in rehearsals. Content-wise, the spoken passages in the Nicolai give us a little elbow room.

Spoken words in operas are often somewhat cumbersome and very much of their time. How have you rendered them in this case?

We’ve pared the spoken passages back drastically, modernised the language a little and tried to remove their expositional style. What was particularly nice about the process was that this happened not just with the dramaturgs at the pre-production stage but also during rehearsals – with our extraordinarily creative ensemble. The singers were involved in a big way. They’re all very open to ideas, very flexible, and they’re great actors.

So you’re saying that things are still in a state of flux and there could still be some major tweaking between now and the premiere?

You often hear that many things in opera – the length of a scene, for instance – are pre-determined by the music. But plays are not so very different. Speech is not just intellect; it’s also sound and atmosphere. In a playful opera like »Merry Wives« there’s a lot of scope for trying stuff out. Our Falstaff is just as comic a character as he is in the original. But the melancholy of the last man, who’s left awake when all the drinkers have dropped off to sleep, is also a form of melancholy that has to be accorded its place in the world - and in this opera, too, which, as I said, is made up not just of a string of slapstick elements but of three different worlds.

Interview: Annette Zerpner