Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Falstaff (Verdi)
An Opera by Giuseppe Verdi
Opera in three acts, by Verdi; words by Arrigo Boito, after Shakespeares "Merry Wives of Windsor" and "King Henry IV." Produced, La Scala, Milan, March 12, 1893. Paris, Opéra Comique, April 18, 1894. London, May 19, 1894. New York, Metropolitan Opera House, February 4, 1895. This was the first performance of "Falstaff" in North America. It had been heard in Buenos Aires, July 19, 1893. The Metropolitan cast included Maurel as Falstaff, Eames as Mistress Ford, Zelie de Lussan as Nanetta (Anne), Scalchi as Dame Quickly, Campanini as Ford, Russitano as Fenton. Scotti, Destinn, Alda, and Gay also have appeared at the Metropolitan in "Falstaff." The London production was at Covent Garden.
SIR JOHN FALSTAFF
FENTON, a young gentleman
FORD, a wealthy burger
BARDOLPH, follower of Falstaff
PISTOL, follower of Falstaff
ROBIN, a page in Fords household
ANNE, her daughter
Burghers and street-folk, Fords servants, maskers, as elves, fairies, witches, etc.
Time: Reign of Henry IV.
Note: In the Shakespeare comedy Anne Ford is Anne Page.
Shakespeares comedy, "The Merry Wives of Windsor," did not have its first lyric adaptation when the composer of "Rigoletto" and "Aida," influenced probably by his distinguished librettist, penned the score of his last work for the stage. "Falstaff," by Salieri, was produced in Vienna in 1798; another "Falstaff," by Balfe, came out in London in 1838. Otto Nicolais opera "The Merry Wives of Windsor" is mentioned in another essay on this website. The character of Falstaff also appears in "Le Songe dune Nuit d'Eté" (The Midsummer Nights Dream) by Ambroise Thomas, Paris, 1850, "where the type is treated with an adepts hand, especially in the first act, which is a masterpiece of pure comedy in music." "Le Songe dune Nuit dEté" was, in fact, Thomass first significant success. A one-act piece, "Falstaff," by Adolphe Adam, was produced at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1856.
The comedy of the "Merry Wives," however, was not the only Shakespeare play put under contribution by Boito. At the head of the "Falstaff" score is this note: "The present comedy is taken from The Merry Wives of Windsor and from several passages in Henry IV by Shakespeare."
Falstaff, it should be noted, is a historic figure; he was a brave soldier; served in France; was governor of Hondleur; took an important part in the battle of Agincourt, and was in all the engagements before the walls of Orleans, where the English finally were obliged to retreat before Joan of Arc. Sir John Falstaff died at the age of eighty-two years in county Nortfolk, his native shire, after numerous valiant exploits, and having occupied his old age in caring for the interest of the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge, to be foundation of which he had largely contributed. To us, however, he is known almost wholly as an enormously stout comic character.
The first scene in the first act of the work by Boito and Verdi shows Falstaff in a room of the Garter Inn. He is accompanied by those two good-for-nothings in his service, Bardolph and Pistol, ragged blackguards, whom he treats with a disdain measured by their own low standards. Dr. Cajus enters. He comes to complain that Falstaff has beaten his servants; also that Bardolph and Pistol made him drunk and then robbed him. Falstaff laughs and browbeats him out of countenance. He departs in anger.
Falstaff has written two love letters and dispatched them to two married belles of Windsor -- Mistress Alice Ford and Mistress Meg Page, asking each one for a rendezvous.
The scene changes to the garden of Fords house, and we are in presence of the "merry wives" -- Alice Ford, Meg Page, and Mistress Quickly. With them is Anne Ford, Mistress Fords daughter. Besides the garden there is seen part of the Ford house and the public road. In company with Dame Quickly, Meg has come to pay a visit to Alice Ford, to show her a letter which she has just received from Falstaff. Alice matches her with one she also has received from him. The four merry women then read the two letters, which, save for the change of address, are exactly alike. The women are half amused, half annoyed, at the pretensions of the fat knight. They plan to avenge themselves upon him. Meanwhile Ford goes walking before his house in company with Cajus, young Fenton (who is in love with Anne), Bardolph, and Pistol. The last two worthies have betrayed their master. From them Ford has learned that Falstaff is after his wife. He too meditates revenge, and goes off with the others, except Fenton, who lingers, kisses Anne through the rail fence of the garden, and sings a love duet with her. The men return. Fenton rejoins them. Anne runs back to her mother, and the four women are seen up-stage, concocting of revenge.
The second act reverts to the Garter Inn, where Falstaff is still at table. Dame Quickly comes with a message from Alice to agree to the rendezvous he has asked for. It is at the Ford house between two and three oclock, it being Fords custom to absent himself at that time. Falstaff is pompously delighted. He promises to be prompt.
Hardly has dame Quickly left, when Ford arrives. He introduces himself to Falstaff under an assumed name, presents the knight with a purse of silver as a bait, then tells him that he is in love with Mistress Ford, whose chastity he cannot conquer, and begs Falstaff to lay siege to her and so make the way easier for him. Falstaff gleefully tells him that he has a rendezvous with her that very afternoon. This is just what Ford wanted to know.
The next scene place in Fords house, where the four women get ready to give Falstaff the reception he merits. One learns here, quite casually from talk between Mistress Ford and Anne, that Ford wants to marry off the girl to the aged pedant Cajus, while she, of course, will marry none but Fenton, with whom she is in love. Her mother promises to aid her plans.
Falstaffs arrival is announced. Dame Quickly, Meg, and Anne leave Mistress Ford with him, but conceal themselves in readiness to come in response to the first signal. They are needed sooner than expected. Ford is heard approaching. Quick! The fat lover must be concealed. This is accomplished by getting him behind a screen. Ford enters with his followers, hoping to surprise the rake. With them he begins a search of the rooms. While they are off exploring another part of the house the women hurry Falstaff into a big wash basket, pile the soiled clothes over him, and fasten it down. Scarcely has this been done when Ford comes back, thinking of the screen. Just then he hears the sound of kissing behind this piece of furniture. No longer any doubt! Falstaff is hidden there with his wife. He knocks down the screen -- and finds behind it Anne and Fenton, who have used to their own purpose the diversion of attention from them by the hunt for Falstaff. Ford, more furious than ever, rushes out. His wife and her friends call in the servants, who lift the basket and empty it out of the window into the Thames, which flows below. When Ford comes back, his wife leads him to the window and shows him Falstaff striking out clumsily for the shore, a butt of ridicule for all who see him.
In the third act Dame Quickly is once more seen approaching Falstaff, who is seated on a bench outside the Garter Inn. In behalf of Mistress Ford, she offers him another rendezvous. Falstaff wants to hear no more, but Dame Quickly makes so many good excuses for her friend that he decides to meet Mistress Ford at the time and place asked for by her -- midnight, at Hernes oak in Windsor forest, Falstaff to appear in the disguise of the black huntsman, who, according to legend, hung himself from the oak, with the result that the spot is haunted by witches and sprites.
Falstaff, in the forest at midnight, is surrounded by the merry women, the whole Ford entourage, and about a hundred others, all disguised and masked. They unite in mystifying, taunting, and belabouring him, until at last he realizes whom he has to deal with. And as it is necessary for everything to end in a wedding, it is then that Mistress Ford persuades her husband to abandon his plan to take the pedantic Dr. Cajus for son-in-law and give his daughter Anne to Fenton.
Even taking into account "Otello," the general form of the music in "Falstaff" is an innovation for Verdi. All the scenes are connected without break in continuity, as in the Wagnerian music-drama, but applied to an entirely different style of music from Wagners. "It required all the genius and dramatic experience of a Verdi, who had drama in his blood, to succeed in a lyrical adventure like Falstaff, the whole score of which displays amazing youthfulness, dash, and spirit, coupled with extraordinary grace." On the other hand, as regards inspiration pure and simple, it has been said that there is not found in "Falstaff" the freshness of imagination or the abundance of ideas of the earlier Verdi, and that one looks in vain for one of those motifs di prima intenzione, like the romance of Germont in "La Traviata," the song of the Duke in "Rigoletto," or the "Miserere" in "Il Trovatore," and so many others that might be named. The same writer, however, credits the score with remarkable purity of form and with a sveltesse and lightness that are astonishing in the always lively attraction of the musical discourse, to say nothing of a "charming orchestration, well put together, likeable and full of coquetry, in which are found all the brilliancy and facility of the Rossini method."
Notwithstanding the above writers appreciate words regarding the instrumentation of "Falstaff," he has fallen foul of the work, because he listened to it purely in the spirit of an opera-goer, and judged it as an opera instead of as a music-drama. If I may be pardoned the solecism, a music-drama "listens" different from an opera. A person accustomed only to opera has his ears cocked for song soaring above an accompaniment that counts for nothing save as a support for the voice. The music-lover, who knows what a music-drama consists of, is aware that it presents a well-balanced score, in which the orchestra frequently changes place with the voice in interpreting the action. It is because in "Falstaff" Verdi makes the orchestra act and sing -- which to an opera-goer, his ears alert for vocal melody, means nothing -- that the average audience, expecting something like unto what Verdi has given them before, is disappointed. Extremists, one way or another, are one-sided. Whoever is able to appreciate both opera and music-drama, a catholicity of taste I consider myself fortunate in possessing, can admire "Rigoletto," "Il Trovatore, and "La Traviata" as much as the most confirmed devotee of opera; but can also go further, and follow Verdi into regions where the intake is that of the pure spirit of comedy at times exhaled by the voice, at times by the orchestra.
While not divided into distinct "numbers," there are passages in "Falstaff" in which Verdi has concentrated his attention on certain characteristic episodes. In the first scene of the first act occurs Falstaffs lyric in praise of Mistress Ford, "O amor! Sguardo di stella!" (O Love, with starlike eyes). I quote the beautiful passage at "Alice è il nome" (And Alice is her name).
The same scene has the honour monologue from "King Henry IV," which is purely declamatory, but with a remarkably vivid and characteristic accompaniment, in which especially the bassoons and clarinets comment merrily on the sarcastic sentences addressed to Bardolph and Pistol.
In the second scene of Act I, besides the episodes in which Mistress Ford reads Falstaffs letter, the unaccompanied quartet for the women ("Though shaped like a barrel, he fain would come courting"), the quartet for the men, and the close of the act in which both quartets take part, there is the piquant duet for Anne and Fenton, in which the lovers kiss each other between the palings of the fence. From this duet I quote the amatory exchange of phrases, "Labbra di foco" (Lips all afire) and "Labbra di fiore" (Lips of a flower) between Anne and Fenton.
As the curtain falls Mistress Ford roguishly quotes a line from Falstaffs verses, the four women together and another quotation, "Come una stella nell immensita" (Like some sweet star that sparkles all the night), and go out laughing. In fact the music for the women takes many an piquant turn.
In Act II, the whole scene between Falstaff and Dame Quickly is full of witty commentary by the orchestra. The scene between Falstaff and Ford also derives its significance from the instrumentation. Fords monologue, when he is peruaded by Falstaffs boastful talk that his wife is fickle, is highly dramatic. The little scene of Fords and Falstaffs departure -- Ford to expose his betrayed by his wife, Falstaff for his rendezvous with her -- "is underscored by a graceful and very elegant orchestral dialogue."
The second scene of this act has Dame Quicklys madcap narrative of her interview with Falstaff; and Falstaffs ditty sung of Mistress Ford, "Quandero paggio del Duca di Norfolk" (When I was page to the Duke of Norfolk). From the popular point of view, this is the outstanding musical number of the work. It is amusing, pathetic, graceful, and sad; irresistible, in fact, in its mingled sentiments of comedy and regret. Very brief, it rarely fails of encores from one to four in number. I quote the following:
The search for Falstaff by Ford and his followers is most humorously treated in the score.
In Act III, in the opening scene, in which Falstaff soliloquizes over his misadventures, the humour, so far as the music is concerned, is conveyed by the orchestra.
From Fentos song of love, which opens the scene at Hernes oak in Windsor forest, I quote this expressive passage:
Another delightful solo in this scene is Annes "Erriam sotto la luna" (Well dance in the moonlight).
There are mysterious choruses -- sibilant and articulately vocalized -- and a final fugue.