LA JOLLA — If it's true that summer music-making should never aspire to rise above a frothy pops spritzer, Otto Nicolai's "Merry Wives of Windsor" should be the ideal July thirst-quencher. Pacific Chamber Opera's current slapstick production of Nicolai's good-natured comic opera, however, is effervescent to the point of inducing giddiness.
The production's main virtue resides in its rousing choruses and spirited ensemble singing. With the exception of baritone Martin Wright and soprano Kathryn Evans, the voices are not of the caliber to thrill even a casual opera buff.
As Mr. Ford, Wright projected both his clarion voice and aptly blustery character to the farthest reaches of Sherwood Hall. Although Wright is best known locally as San Diego Opera's chorus master, this onstage role demonstrated that his musical aptitude is not limited to training the chorus.
Evans' clear, well-focused lyric soprano graced the role of Ann Page with more than requisite charm.
Tenor Joseph Carson made a fetching Fenton, even if at times his voice exhibited a reedy edge. His duets with Evans brought out his best qualities. Soprano Patricia Smith had the range and facility for the vocally challenging role of Mistress Ford, but her mannerisms and shrill over-singing at times got in the way of her character.
In the crucial role of Falstaff, bass Stan Case sang with conviction in inverse proportion to his character's fabled girth. His pallid vocal manner was more suited to a footman than to the lecherous knight-errant, but such miscasting is typical of director Gar Hildenbrand's work.
As the company's artistic director and the production's stage director, travesty seems to be Hildenbrand's middle name. He consistently allowed his large cast to stumble about the stage, strike egregiously conventional poses, and indulge in sophomoric behavior at the slightest provocation. The second act Garter Inn drinking match and allied antics looked like a skit staged by a crew of "Animal House" rejects.
With conductor Andrew Jongsma, Pacific Chamber Opera has solved its orchestral problems. Jongsma's thoroughly professional leadership elicited a credible and sometimes stirring facsimile of Nicolai's colorful score, even though he was working with an ensemble that was only partially staffed by union players.
With the limited number of annual productions of international caliber given by San Diego Opera, there certainly is room for a less pretentious local company. Mounting productions of that vast operatic repertory unlikely to find its way to the stage of Civic Theatre is a worthy goal, as long as cogently directed, promising young singers are featured. When Pacific Chamber Opera moves out of the brackish backwaters of dilettantism, it will be able to fill that function.
"Merry Wives of Windsor" at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art's Sherwood Hall will be presented again Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.