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The Story of Verdi's 'Falstaff'

At age 79, composer Giuseppe Verdi caused a sensation with <em>Falstaff</em>, the first comic opera he had written in more than 50 years.
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At age 79, composer Giuseppe Verdi caused a sensation with Falstaff, the first comic opera he had written in more than 50 years.

BACKGROUND: You may be familiar with Sir John Falstaff from a trio of dramas by Shakespeare: Parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Even so, you'll find that the roly-poly knight takes on even more vitality in Verdi's final opera. The score is overflowing with wit and revelry, and brims with insights into human nature.

Verdi was famous for his love of Shakespeare, and already had Macbeth and Otello under his belt when, while in his late 70s, he was casting about for the subject of a new opera – this time a comedy. It was his friend and librettist Arrigo Boito who suggested The Merry Wives of Windsor. Boito worked up a rough draft, Verdi loved it, and by 1890 the two had completed Falstaff. It had its premiere at La Scala in 1893.

ACT ONE: The opera is set in Windsor, England, in the early 15th century, during the reign of Henry IV. Verdi immediately signals the comic nature of the work with an oddly off-beat C-major chord. From then on, the action is fast and furious.

We meet Sir John Falstaff sitting in the Garter Inn, with a pair of scruffy companions, Bardolph and Pistol. All three are knights who have seen better days. Falstaff is putting two letters into envelopes. Nobody has the money to pay the bar bill, and Falstaff reveals his plan to improve their financial situation. His envelopes contain love letters addressed to two wealthy, married women, Alice Ford and Meg Page. Seduce one of them, he thinks – or maybe both of them – and his money troubles are history. Falstaff wants Bardolph and Pistol to deliver the letters, but they refuse, citing dubious ethical concerns. Falstaff rails against his buddies, chases them from the inn, and gives his letters to a messenger.

In the following scene, Alice Ford and her daughter Nannetta are in their garden talking to Meg Page and Mistress Quickly. When Alice and Meg discover they've received identical letters from Falstaff they know he's up to something, and decide to get even.

As the women leave, Mr. Ford arrives with Dr. Caius, Fenton, Bardolph, and Pistol. They all warn Ford about Falstaff's designs. Fenton seeks out Nannetta, his secret lover, and the two steal kisses. The other women return, with a plot to send Mistress Quickly to Falstaff to arrange a rendezvous with Alice. Meanwhile, Ford also has a scheme to get back at Falstaff. In the Act One finale, both the men and women are determined to cut the fat knight down to size.

ACT TWO: Falstaff is back at the Garter Inn. Mistress Quickly arrives and assures Falstaff that both Alice and Meg return his affections. After arranging a meeting with Alice, Falstaff gives Quickly a puny tip, then prances and preens for everyone, anticipating his amorous conquest.

Ford enters, disguised as "Master Brook." He says he's also in love with Alice, but she won't give him the time of day. Falstaff brags about his imminent assignation with Alice. Ford is furious, but pulls himself together and he and Falstaff leave arm in arm.

At Ford's house, Mistress Quickly tells Alice and Meg about her meeting with Falstaff. Just before Falstaff arrives, the women hide — except for Alice, who sits strumming a lute. Falstaff begins to brag about his youth, when he was a handsome, slender thing. He's cut short when Quickly arrives to announce that Meg is coming. Falstaff jumps behind a dressing screen to hide.

Meg brings news that Ford is on the way, and he's angry. When Ford gets there, he and his men search the house and a panicky Falstaff jumps into a basket of dirty laundry. Ford hears something behind the screen and knocks it over, but finds only Fenton and Nannetta, in a lustful embrace. When the searchers move to other parts of the house, Alice orders her servants to dump the laundry basket out the window and into the Thames. As the act ends Falstaff is seen ignominiously blubbering in the water, and everyone gets a good laugh at his expense.

ACT THREE: As the action resumes we find Falstaff — where else? — back at the Garter Inn, drinking. He's wailing about his humiliating adventure when Mistress Quickly turns up. She insists that Alice Ford really is in love with him. To prove it, she produces a note from Alice suggesting a midnight tryst in the woods of Windsor Park, under the big oak tree. The note says Falstaff should come in disguise, dressed as the Black Huntsman whose ghost reportedly haunts those woods.

Quickly regales Falstaff with spooky tales of the Huntsman while Alice, Ford, Meg, Caius, and Fenton sneak in. They make a plot to scare Falstaff by dressing up as strange creatures and woodland spirits. Ford then comes up with a plot of his own, to marry Nannetta off to Dr. Caius – anything to keep her away from Fenton – but Quickly overhears him.

The final scene is in the moonlit forest. Fenton is disguised as a monk, Nannetta as queen of the fairies, Meg as a nymph, and Quickly as a witch. They all scatter when Falstaff comes tromping in wearing his ridiculous Huntsman getup, complete with a full set of antlers. Just as he greets Alice, Meg – the nymph – mysteriously warns them of approaching demons. Falstaff shudders and cowers, while Nannetta summons the forest creatures. They emerge from the woods, prodding, poking and pinching Falstaff, who finally is so undone that he drops to the ground and begs for mercy. Then, he recognizes Bardolph behind one of the masks, and the others also reveal themselves. Falstaff is briefly confused, then comes out with booming laugh. He may be a braggart and a cheat, but he does have a healthy sense of humor.

Ford proposes to celebrate the betrothal of the Queen of the Fairies – Nannetta – thinking he's about to bless her union with Caius. At that, Alice brings forward two brides and two grooms, all still in disguise. Without knowing what he's actually doing, Ford pledges his daughter Nannetta to her lover Fenton, and Caius finds himself engaged to Bardolph! Ford realizes he's been tricked, but still gives his blessing. In the finale, Falstaff leads the entire company in declaring, "All the world is a joke."

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