Few operatic characters straddle the operatic stage larger than Sir John Falstaff. Prince Hal’s sidekick in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, as well as the figure of fun in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he was the inspiration for a handful of operas, the most notable of which was Verdi’s Falstaff. It was the publisher Giulio Ricordi and the composer Arrigo Boito who had tempted Verdi out of retirement from his farm in Sant’Agata to compose Otello. Verdi had always been an avid reader of Shakespeare and regarded Macbeth, one of his ‘galley years’ operas, fondly. After much persuasion, Verdi relented. Boito provided the libretto and Verdi composed some of his greatest music. Otello was a huge success.

Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Boito again provided the libretto for Falstaff, Verdi’s final opera, composed – in secret – as he approached 80 years of age. It is a miracle of old age in many ways. It was Verdi’s first comedy since his early flop Un giorno di regno, although there is broad humour in the character of Fra Melitone (in La forza del destino) as well as the black comedy surrounding the conspirators in Un ballo in maschera. Perhaps Verdi wished to prove his doubters wrong: “After having relentlesly massacred so many heroes and heroines… I have at last the right to laugh a little.”

Bryn Terfel (Falstaff) and Ainhoa Arteta (Alice) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Bryn Terfel (Falstaff) and Ainhoa Arteta (Alice)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

For all Verdi’s fondness for Macbeth, his opera is a pale shadow of Shakespeare’s original play. In Otello, Verdi and Boito matched the Bard’s inspiration, but in Falstaff, they exceeded it. Boito drew mostly on The Merry Wives of Windsor – one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays – to create a libretto on which Verdi composed a true ensemble piece, but one where the irrepressible fat knight is at the very centre.

The one significant detour from Merry Wives occurs at the end of the first scene, where Bardolph and Pistol – Falstaff’s two hangers-on – refuse to deliver his love letters to Mistresses Ford and Page, citing “honour” as the reason. Boito here draws on Falstaff’s “honour” monologue from Henry IV Part I:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honour”? What is that “honour”? Air.

 

The plot concerns the attempts of Falstaff, noble but with significant cash flow problems, to woo the wives of two rich Windsor gentlemen, Ford and Page. He is foiled, of course, his first attempt resulting in him being thrown from a laundry basket into the Thames. Here he is, revealing to Alice Ford that he wasn’t always such a size (“When I was page to the Duke of Norfolk I was slender”):

 

After his ducking in the Thames, Falstaff is inexplicably tricked into a second assignation, this time in Windsor Park at midnight. The schemers – including Ford this time – taunt and terrify him, dressed as woodland spirits. There is also a delicious subplot concerning the budding romance between Fenton and Nanetta (Anne Page from the play, who here becomes the daughter of the Fords).

Verdi’s score is remarkable. He through-composed much of the opera, with few ‘stand alone’ arias or duets. The detail in his orchestral palette is far removed from the simple ‘oom-pah-pah’ accompaniments to his early operas. Listen to the opening of Act III. Falstaff has just dragged himself out of the Thames and is understandably unhappy, the lower strings grumbling his annoyance at the world. He calls for some mulled wine and as he drains the tankard, you can hear the effect it has on lifting his spirits, as woodwinds gurgle with delight:

 

Besides the comedy, there are moments of darkness in the score, such as when the disguised Ford discovers Falstaff has an assignation with his wife and he is wracked with suspicion and pain. The treatment of Falstaff in the final scene can often seem as if the plotters have taken things too far, bordering on the malicious. Thankfully, Falstaff can shrug off his predicament, pointing out that his wit inspires them. Verdi ends it all with a fugue – “a devil of a fugue” as Elgar might have called it – proclaiming that all the world is a jest.

Elgar himself composed a symphonic poem about the fat knight –  more melancholy than humorous. There are other operas, though, to consider. Antonio Salieri’s Falstaff dispenses with the romantic subplot; musically, it is of little significance.

Otto Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor is a singspiel from the 1840s and receives the occasional performance or two. The Overture remains the score’s best known number but there are some notable musical numbers, including a lovely duet for Anna and Fenton, here sung by Lucia Popp and Ernst Schütz:

There have been English settings of Falstaff. He features in Gustav Holst’s one act opera At the Boar’s Head, although this is purely based on the Henry IV character rather than anything to do with Windsor’s merry wives. Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love is a humorous, if lengthy, opera, which has an elegiac, autumnal quality. It doesn’t begin to compare with Verdi’s swansong, but is worth the occasional outing. The composer was criticized for including snatches of folk song, but this adds to its charm; one of its interludes is instantly recognisable! (See below.)