Shakespeare and opera have often been strange bedfellows. Numerous attempts at translating The Bard’s plays for the operatic stage have been made and very few of these have succeeded to hold the stage, one of the first and most notable being Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy-Queen (1692), which in reality is a curtailed version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream interspersed with interludes. What followed over the next century did not produce any opera of star quality and it was only with Rossini’s Otello (1816) that any really noteworthy success was achieved. As the 19th century progressed the development of expressive freedom through Romanticism made it more possible to capture the full range of Shakespearean emotions. The century was rounded off with two towering masterpieces, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893) – both late works by Verdi. 

Falstaff © Eduard von Grützner
© Eduard von Grützner
In England, opera in the 18th and 19th century was seen to be the domain of foreigners and the only real home-grown success to be found was in the musical comedy world of Gilbert and Sullivan. The first British composers to seriously attempt operatic compositions with a modicum of success were Parry, Stanford, Dame Ethel Smyth and Delius. The latter was the most ambitious and original and his lyric drama A Village Romeo and Juliet (1901), which used a Shakespearean theme updated to a more ‘realistic’ setting, proved to be something of a success, largely due to the beautiful interlude “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” that has become a popular concert piece.

However it was the next generation of British composers, led by Vaughan Williams and Holst who did so much to create a national musical identity so lacking since Purcell’s time. Through the introduction of folksong and the rediscovery of Tudor music, significant inroads were made into developing a national opera idiom for other British composers to build on. Not that either composer achieved much recognition for their operatic efforts in their lifetime and beyond, but the debt owed to them in Britten’s  much admired operas is clear to see: Holst Sāvitri to The Rape of Lucretia, and Vaughan Williams' Riders to the Sea to Peter Grimes. Likewise Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love (1929) and Holst’s At the Boar’s Head (1925) were the first British operas and quite possibly the first operas per se, to fully embrace the Shakespearean language and English setting and further developed by Britten in his critically acclaimed A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960).

With Sir John in Love, his second opera, Vaughan Williams set out musically to achieve an amalgam of folksong based material interwoven with his own harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated 1920s palette. This he achieved in the most natural and unassuming way. Using his own libretto, that follows very closely the text of The Merry Wives of Windsor, with the addition of a few Elizabethan poems to flesh out some of the arias and choruses, the action moves much as it does in the play. Unlike Verdi and Boito, this opera serves its source material rather than being pulled into shape to fit the demands of the operatic stage. For better or for worse, this leads to a very authentically Shakespearean feel to the piece.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

The character of Falstaff himself in Sir John in Love is also closer in spirit to the much beloved Shakespearean character as portrayed in The Merry Wives of Windsor than in the Verdi. Boito added dialogue from Henry IV to his libretto for Verdi to flesh out the character and emphasise his history of influence with royalty and, as a result, Falstaff is a dominant, almost tragic figure. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, this Falstaff is more contained by the situation he finds himself in. Here Shakespeare and Vaughan Williams use Falstaff to represent the loss of control and dignity as a result of ageing, and also the jarring class differences between the genteel warrior class and the wealthy Windsor merchant classes, which was very much a feature of late medieval/Tudor society. In the end, the Falstaff depicted here is at worst to be pitied and at best admired for a bigness of heart and warmth of spirit. This was the Falstaff that Vaughan Williams loved and perhaps identified with as a man in his late 50s.

Musically Sir John in Love is a delight. If not as original and powerful as Riders to the Sea, it is the most theatrically viable and stylistically subtle of all of Vaughan Williams' operas. The score is filled with glorious melody, most of which is of the composers invention, but dovetailed effortlessly with folksong and Tudor melodies, such as Greensleeves interlude, which the composer developed into his ever popular Fantasia on Greensleeves.

Highlights are to be found in the romance of the love duets between Anne Page and Fenton (clip below):

There is also brilliant nifty ensemble work in the first act, deft comic timing in the third act wooing of Mistresses Page and Ford, passion from Ford both in his Act I aria, when he thinks he is being made a cuckold (below), and in Act IV when he realises he isn’t and has to apologies to his wife.

There is also magical writing in Act IV scene 2, when Falstaff is taught a lesson or two by the fairies and goblins/townsfolk in Windsor Forest.

Far from being a poor cousin of Verdi’s Falstaff, Vaughan Williams' The Fat Knight, as the opera was initially called, is a rich and wonderful concoction that deserves to be in the repertoire of opera houses in this country, but also internationally. Maybe the composer himself has contributed to the neglect of the work with his much quoted and typically self-effacing preface to the published score “To write yet another opera about Falstaff at this time of day may seem the height of impertinence‚ for one appears in so doing to be entering into competition with four great men – Shakespeare‚ Verdi‚ Nicolai and Holst.” But this is a work that he was clearly and justifiably proud of and he carried on cherishing, as we should now, for the rest of his life.