Falstaff is an operatic commedia lirica in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi, adapted by Arrigo Boito from Shakespeare's plays The Merry Wives of Windsor and scenes from Henry IV. It was Verdi's last opera, written in the composer's ninth decade, and only the second of his 26 operas to be a comedy. It was also the third of Verdi's operas to be based on a Shakespearean play, following his earlier Macbeth and Otello. (Verdi had toyed, too, with writing an opera based on King Lear and Arrigo Boito later tried to interest him in Anthony and Cleopatra, but neither project was ever brought to fruition.)
The first performance of Falstaff took place on 9 February 1893 at La Scala, Milan to great success. The illustrious French baritone Victor Maurel, who had created the role of Iago in Verdi's previous opera, Otello, sang Falstaff at the premiere.
While it has not proved to be as immensely popular as the Verdi works that immediately preceded it, namely Aida and Otello, Falstaff has long been an admired favorite with critics and musicians because of its brilliant orchestration, scintillating libretto and refined melodic invention. It is in the standard repertoire of many opera companies.
The first performance abroad was in Vienna, on 21 May 1893.Hamburg first saw Falstaff on 2 January 1894, conducted by Gustav Mahler. In the UK, the opera was first presented at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 19 May 1894 with Arturo Pessina in the title role, while the US premiere was at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, on 4 February 1895 with Victor Maurel as Falstaff. The opera is still frequently performed throughout the world.
Verdi directing the rehearsals of Falstaff
- Time: The reign of Henry IV, 1399 to 1413
- Place: Windsor, England
A room at the Garter Inn
Falstaff is surrounded by his servants Bardolfo, Pistola, and the innkeeper. Dr. Caius arrives and accuses him of robbery, but the excited doctor is soon ejected. Falstaff hands two letters to each of his servants for delivery to Mistress Ford and to Mistress Page, two wealthy married women. In these two identical letters, Falstaff professes his love for each of them, although it is really their husbands’ money that he covets. His servants Bardolfo and Pistola refuse, claiming that 'honour' prevents them from obeying him. Falstaff sends the letters by a page instead. Falstaff then responds ironically by confronting his honourable servants and shouts (L'onore! Ladri! Voi state ligi all’honor vostro, voi! / “Honor! You rogues! You are bound by your honor…”) and chases them out of his sight.
Alice and Meg have received Falstaff's identical letters. They exchange them, and in conjunction with Mistress Quickly, resolve to punish the knight. Meanwhile, Ford has been warned of the letters by Bardolfo and Pistola. All three are thirsty for revenge. Finding themselves alone for once, a brief love duet between Fenton (an employee of Ford) and Nannetta follows. The women return home and Mistress Quickly is requested to invite Falstaff to a rendez-vous with Alice. The men also arrive at the scene, and Bardolfo and Pistola are persuaded to introduce Ford to Falstaff, but under an assumed name.
Engraving by Ettore Tito
of Act II, Scene 2, from the original production. Ford and the servants creeps towards Fenton and Nannetta, who they think are Falstaff and Alice, behind the screen, while the women stifle Falstaff in the laundry basket.
A room at the Garter Inn
Bardolfo and Pistola (now in the pay of Ford), pretending to beg for forgiveness for past transgressions, announce to their master the arrival of Mistress Quickly, who delivers the invitation to go to Alice's house that very day between the hours of two and three. She also delivers an answer by Mistress Page and assures Falstaff that neither are aware of the other's invitaton. Falstaff celebrates his potential success ("Va, vecchio John" /”Go, old Jack, go your own way”). Ford is now introduced as Signor Fontana; he offers money to the fat knight to intercede for him with Mistress Ford. Falstaff is puzzled at the request, "Fontana" says that if Mistress Ford falls for him, it will be easier that she will fall for him too. Falstaff agrees with pleasure and reveals that he has already succeeded, because he has a rendez-vous with her at two; while he dresses in his most splendid array, Ford is consumed with jealousy (È sogno o realtà? / "Is it a dream or reality?").
A room in Ford's house
The three women plot their strategy ("Gaie Comari di Windsor" / “Merry wives of Windsor, the time has come!”. Nanetta also learns that her father plans to marry her with Dr. Caius, but all the women declare that that will not happen. Mistress Quickly announces Falstaff's arrival, Mistress Ford has a large hamper placed in readiness. Falstaff's attempts to seduce Alice with tales of his past glory ("Quand'ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk" / “When I page to the Duke of Norfolk I was slender”) are cut short, as Mistress Quickly reports the arrival of Master Ford. When the angry Ford and his friends appear with the aim of catching Falstaff red handed; he hides first behind a screen and then the ladies hide the knight in the hamper. In the meantime, Fenton and Nannetta have hidden behind the screen. Upon returning from their search for Falstaff, the men hear the sound of a kiss behind the screen. They think that they will at last grab Falstaff, but instead find Fenton, who is ordered by Ford to leave, in the meantime Falstaff has been complaining that he is sweating too much inside the hamper. When the men again proceed with the search, the women order the hamper to be thrown into the ditch through the window, where Falstaff is compelled to endure the jeers of the crowd.
Before the inn
In a gloomy mood, Falstaff curses the sorry state of the world. However, some mulled wine soon improves his mood. The fat knight receives another invitation through Mistress Quickly, who blames the servants for what happened to him, the invitation consists of going to Herne's Oak dressed up as the Herne the Hunter, aka the Black Huntsman. Although dubious at first, Falstaff promises to go. He enters the house with Mistress Quickly, and the men and women concoct a plan for his punishment. Dr. Caius is promised Nannetta's hand in marriage and is told how he may recognize her in her disguise, but the plot is overheard by Mistress Quickly.
Herne's Oak in Windsor Park on a moonlit midnight
Fenton arrives at the oak tree and sings of his happiness ("Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola" / “From my lips, my song of ecstasy flies”) ending with “Lips that are kissed lose none of their allure”. Nanetta enters to finish the line with “Indeed, they renew it, like the moon”. The women arrive and disguise Fenton as a monk, telling him that they have arranged things so as to spoil Dr. Caius' plans. Nanetta, playing the role of the Fairy Queen, instructs her helpers ("Sul fil d'un soffio etesio" / “On the breath of a fragrant breeze, fly, nimble spirits”) before all the characters arrive on the scene. Falstaff's attempted love scene with Mistress Ford is interrupted by the announcement that witches are approaching, and the men, who are disguised as elves and fairies, soundly thrash Falstaff. Sir Falstaff recognizes Bardolfo in disguise and the joke is over, but he acknowledges that he has received his due. Ford announces that a wedding shall ensue (a second couple "coincidentally" asks to be married at that time also) and Dr. Caius finds that instead of Nannetta, he has landed Bardolfo who is dressed in the same fairy queen outfit as Nanetta and Ford unwittingly has married Fenton and Nannetta. Falstaff, pleased to find himself not the only dupe, proclaims in a fugue, which the entire company sings, that all the world is folly and all are figures of fun (Tutto nel mondo è burla... Tutti gabbati! / "Everything in the world a jest...").
Verdi scored Falstaff for 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, timpani, percussion (triangle, cymbals, bass drum), harp, and strings. In addition, a guitar, natural horn, and bell are heard from offstage.
Opera House and Orchestra
Teatro alla Scala Orchestra and chorus
|Audio CD: Naxos Records
Herbert von Karajan,
Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus
|Audio CD: EMI Classics
Cat: CDM 5 67083 2
Wiener Philharmoniker and Wiener Staatsopernchor
|Audio CD: CBS Masterworks
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus
|Audio CD: DGG
Cat: 289 471 194-2
^ Michael Steen, The Lives and Times of the Great Composers, Icon Books, 2003, p. 543. ISBN 1-84046-485-2 Books.Google.com.uk
^ a b Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., 1954
^ Holden, Amanda (ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001, page 1009. ISBN 0-140-29312-4
^ Hepokoski, James Arnold, Verdi, Falstaff, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 130. ISBN 0521280168
^ List of singers taken from Budden, Julian: The Operas of Verdi (Cassell), vol 3, p. 416.
^ Budden, p.430
^ Adapted from Leo Melitz, The Opera Goer's Complete Guide, 1921 version
^ Recordings on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
Melnitz, Leo, The Opera Goer's Complete Guide, 1921 version.