Verdi 200, Falstaff

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Celebrating Verdi’s bicentennial!




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 premiered on 9 February 1893 at La Scala, Milan to great success.

Falstaff was Verdi’s last opera, written in the composer’s ninth decade, and was only the second of his 28 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 also toyed with the idea of writing an opera based on King Lear, and Arrigo Boito later tried to interest him in Antony and Cleopatra, but neither project was ever brought to fruition.)

While it has not proved to be as immensely popular as the Verdi works that immediately preceded it, 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.

A little bit of history:

About two years after Otello’s success in 1887 and having had the idea in mind of composing a comedy for some time (but without having found a suitable libretto), Verdi met with Boito in Milan in June 1890 where the librettist proposed the idea of a work based on The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The composer encouraged Boito to prepare a draft, and it arrived a few weeks later, at a time when Verdi’s interest had been piqued by reading Shakespeare’s play (along with several others): “Benissimo! Benissimo!… No one could have done better than you”, he wrote back.

But Verdi had doubts, and on the next day sent another letter to Boito expressing his concerns, which related to “the large number of years in my age”, his health (which he admits to being good), his ability to complete the project: “if I were not to finish the music?”, and stating that this would all be a waste of the younger man’s time and be a distraction for the librettist in composing his own new opera (which became Nerone).

However, as his biographer, Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, notes “Verdi could not hide his delight at the idea of writing another opera”. The letter continues:

What a joy! To be able to say to the Audience: ‘WE ARE HERE AGAIN!! COME AND SEE US!!’

and, on 10 July, he enthusiastically writes again:

Amen; so be it! So let’s do Falstaff! For now, let’s not think of obstacles, of age, of illnesses! I also want to keep the deepest secrecy: a word that I underline three times to you that no one must know anything about it! (He notes that his wife will know about it, but assures Boito that she can keep a secret.) Anyway, if you are in the mood, then start to write.

The secret was kept for the following eighteen months.

Within a month, Verdi wrote to Boito telling him that he was writing a fugue: “Yes, Sir! A fugue…and a buffa fugue”, which the librettist noted, stated that it could probably be fitted in.

In November, Boito planned to take the completed first act to Verdi at Santa’Agata, along with the second act, which was still under construction: “That act has the devil on its back; and when you touch it, it burns” Boito complained.

They worked on the opera for a week, then Verdi and Strepponi went to Genoa. No more work was done for some time.

Musicologist Roger Parker notes that, unlike in Verdi’s previous compositions (and except for the first act which was completed by March 1890), the opera was not composed in chronological order, explaining that it may have been “an indication of the relative independence of individual scenes”.

Also, progress was slow, with composition “carried out in short bursts of activity interspersed with long fallow periods” partly caused by the composer’s depression at the thought of not being able to complete the score, this having been brought about by the deaths and impending deaths of close friends.

But, as Verdi stated in letters at this time, unlike his previous practice of having a commission from a particular opera house, he was writing for his own pleasure: “in writing Falstaff, I haven’t thought about either theatres or singers”.

He reiterated this idea in December 1890, a time when his sprits were very low after Muzio’s death that November: “Will I finish it (Falstaff)? Or will I not finish it? Who knows! I am writing without any aim, without a goal, just to pass a few hours of the day”.

By early 1891 he was declaring that he could not finish the work that year, but in May he expressed some small optimism, which by mid-June, had turned into:

The Big Belly [the name givento the opera before the composition of Falstaff became public knowledge] is on the road to madness. There are some days when he does not move, he sleeps, and is in a bad humour. At other times he shouts, runs, jumps, and tears the place apart; I let him act up a bit, but if he goes on like this, I will put him in a muzzle and straighjacket.

Boito was overjoyed, and Verdi reported that he was still working on the opera but the two men did not meet again until October or November. Then the Verdis were in Genoa for the winter where they were both ill, so two months of work were lost.

However, by mid-April 1891, the scoring of the first act was complete and by June–July he was even meeting with potential singers for different roles in Falstaff, although that was causing several problems – due to the singer’s demands – in respect to his relationship with Victor Maurel (the baritone who had sung Iago in Otello) and who was being considered for the part of Falstaff: “His demands were so outrageous, exorbitant, (and) incredible that there was nothing else to do but stop the entire project” and communicated the same to Ricordi.

However, by September in a letter to Ricordi, Verdi had agreed that La Scala could present the premiere during the 1892–93 season, but that he retained control over every aspect of the production. An early February date was mentioned along with the demand that the house would be available exclusively after 2 January 1893 and that, even after the dress rehearsal, he could withdraw the opera: “I will leave the theatre, and (Ricordi) will have to take the score away”.

Apart from Verdi’s outrage at the way that La Scala announced the following year’s program on 7 December – “either a revival of Tannhauser or Falstaff” – things went fairly smoothly in January 1893 up to the premiere performance on 9 February, after which the composer, in traditional fashion, stayed in Milan until the night of the third performance.

Regarding Boito’s approach to aspects of the libretto, it has been noted that he might have been referring to the specific musical techniques used in the opera when, in a letter to the composer, he describes various aspects of how he portrayed the characters Nannetta and Fenton in his libretto:

“I can’t quite explain it: I would like as one sprinkles sugar on a tart to sprinkle the whole comedy with that happy love without concentrating it at any one point”.


Performance history:

The first performance of Falstaff, which took place on 9 February 1893 at La Scala, Milan, featured in the title role the illustrious French baritone Victor Maurel, who had created the role of Iago in Verdi’s previous opera, Otello. The premiere was a huge success, with encores, and applause for Verdi and the cast lasting an hour.

This was followed by a tumultuous welcome when the composer, his wife, and Boito arrived at the Grand Hotel de Milan.

After Verdi and Strepponi left Milan on 2 March, Ricordi encouraged the composer to agree to go to the planned Rome performance of 14 April in order not lose any of the momentum and excitement which the opera had generated. The Verdis, along with Boito, Stolz, and Giulio Ricordi, attended along with major royal and political figures of the day plus King Umberto I.

The king introduced Verdi to the audience from the Royal Box to great acclaim, “a national recognition and apotheosis of Verdi that had never been tendered him before”, notes Phillips-Matz.

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, in an English translation by William Beatty Kingston (commissioned by Verdi).

The US premiere was at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, on 4 February 1895 with Victor Maurel as Falstaff.

As observed by Operabase, this opera is still frequently performed throughout the world. During the 2012/13 season, it appears at number 32 of the top 50 operas performed, compared to number 24 during the 2009/10 season.


Time: The reign of Henry IV, 1399 to 1413

Place: Windsor, England


Act 1

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 a letter to each of his two servants for delivery to Mistress Alice Ford and to Mistress Margaret Page, both of whom are 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 rebuffs his “honourable” servants by saying that honour is intangible and cannot be either eaten or felt like a hair being pulled or being saved from death by honour (L’onore! Ladri…! / “Honour! You rogues…!”) and chases them out of his sight.

Ford’s garden

Alice and Meg have received Falstaff’s identical letters. They are furious about the letters and, in conjunction with Mistress Quickly and Nannetta Ford, resolve to punish the knight. Meanwhile, Ford has been warned of the letters by Bardolfo and Pistola, and all three are thirsty for revenge. Alice walks out of the scene, since Ford is very jealous and she does not want him to find out. Finding a moment alone with Nannetta, Fenton (an employee of Ford) woos the boss’ daughter, who responds favorably. The women return home and Mistress Quickly is asked 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. At the end all swear revenge on Sir John Falstaff.

Act 2

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 is aware of the other’s invitation. 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, but “Fontana” explains that if Mistress Ford falls for Falstaff, it will be easier for her to fall for Fontana too. Falstaff agrees with pleasure and reveals that he has already succeeded, because he has a rendez-vous with her at two – the hour when Ford is always absent from home. While Falstaff 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!”). Nannetta also learns that her father plans to marry her with Dr. Caius, a man old enough to be her great-grandfather, but all the women declare that that will not happen. Mistress Quickly announces Falstaff’s arrival, and Mistress Ford has a large hamper and a screen placed in readiness. Falstaff’s attempts to seduce Alice with tales of his past glory (“Quand’ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk” / “When I was page to the Duke of Norfolk I was slender”) are cut short, as Mistress Quickly reports the arrival of Master Ford, who comes with a huge retinue of henchmen to lynch his wife’s lover. When the angry Ford and his friends appear with the aim of catching Falstaff red handed; he hides first behind the 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 with Alice, 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.

Act 3

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 to be filled in more details for his attire, 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, a song of ecstasy flies”) ending with “Lips that are kissed lose none of their allure.” Nannetta 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 Ford and Dr. Caius’ plans. Nannetta, 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, disguised as elves and fairies, soundly thrash Falstaff, who recognizes Bardolfo in disguise and the joke is over, acknowledging 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 Nannetta 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…”).

The extraordinary Bryn Terfel as
Bryn Terfel as Falstaff
Celebrating Verdi’s 200 years!!! The music! The Drama!
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