Verdi's 'Falstaff': Comic Depth (and Girth)

From the Welsh National Opera

Famous Falstaffs

Hear three classic recordings by great singers of the past, including Victor Maurel, the very first Falstaff.

The hit single

In what may be opera's shortest aria, the fat knight recalls a slimmer, more handsome version of himself as the Duke of Norfolk's page.

The B-SIDE

After being tossed in the Thames, Falstaff muses on his soggy adventure and the pleasures of wine.

Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as Falstaff i i

hide captionA good knight for drinking: Bryn Terfel muses on the pleasures of wine, as the title character in Verdi's Falstaff, in a production by the Welsh National Opera.

Clive Barda
Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as Falstaff

A good knight for drinking: Bryn Terfel muses on the pleasures of wine, as the title character in Verdi's Falstaff, in a production by the Welsh National Opera.

Clive Barda

Sir John Falstaff is running out of money and looking for a quick fix. So he sets his sights on two rich women and writes love letters to both. But they're wise to his scheme and set up a little plan of their own to teach Falstaff a lesson. This story could be just a common domestic farce. Except the author was Shakespeare. Later, the play inspired Giuseppe Verdi to write his final opera, a hilarious comedy.

Composed when Verdi was nearly 80, Falstaff sparkles with freshness and originality, showing us that the aging master never even came close to losing his touch.

While you may be familiar with Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, you'll find that the character of Sir John Falstaff — the original fat knight — takes on even more vitality in Verdi's opera. The score is filled with invention, overflowing with wit and revelry. And as a total package, the opera also brims with insights into human nature.

Verdi wasn't the first composer to base an opera on the story of the down-and-out knight Falstaff. In the 18th century, Antonio Salieri also had a crack at it. Salieri's Falstaff was a classic opera buffa—meaning lots of ensemble singing, simple recitative and parody of so-called serious opera. And though it contains plenty of sparkling music, Salieri's version fell out of favor.

Verdi's, on the other hand, has always been popular. Verdi was famous for his love of Shakespeare; he already had Macbeth and Otello under his belt when he was casting about for the subject of a comic opera. His friend and librettist, Arrigo Boito, suggested The Merry Wives of Windsor. Boito worked up a rough draft, Verdi loved it, and by 1890, the two men had completed Falstaff. It received its premiere at Milan's La Scala opera house in 1893.

Falstaff, in fact, is a stock character from Elizabethan comedy: a loudmouth, bragging soldier, prone to overeating, overdrinking, lying and thieving. In Shakespeare's Henry IV, Falstaff makes his first appearance as a friend of Prince Hal. Hal's father, King Henry, accuses the "fat knight" of corrupting his son. But Falstaff's still lovable, and he makes an encore appearance in Shakespeare's Merry Wives. Verdi and librettist Boito borrowed from both plays to create the opera.

Verdi's comic genius begins in the opening measure, with a kind of off-kilter C-major chord. From then on, the action crackles, fast and furious.

In this edition of World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Falstaff, from the Millennium Center in Cardiff, Wales, with a star-studded cast including Bryn Terfel in the title role.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'Falstaff'

Claire Ormshaw in the final scene of Verdi's "Falstaff." i i

hide captionNanetta (Claire Ormshaw) hovers over Falstaff, disguised in antlers, in the final scene of Verdi's Falstaff.

Clive Barda
Claire Ormshaw in the final scene of Verdi's "Falstaff."

Nanetta (Claire Ormshaw) hovers over Falstaff, disguised in antlers, in the final scene of Verdi's Falstaff.

Clive Barda

Who's Who?

Bryn Terfel .......... Sir John Falstaff

Janice Watson .............. Alice Ford

Imelda Drumm .............. Meg Page

Anne-Marie Owens ...... Mistress Quickly

Claire Ormshaw .............. Nanetta

Rhys Meirion .................... Fenton

Neil Jenkins ................... Bardolfo

Julian Close ..................... Pistola

Christopher Purves .............. Ford

Anthony Mee ........... Doctor Caius

Welsh National Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Carlo Rizzi, conductor

Janice Watson, as Alice Ford in Verdi's "Falstaff" i i

hide captionAlice Ford (Janice Watson, center) explains her plans to trick Falstaff to Meg Page (Immelda Drumm, left), Mistress Quickly (Anne-Marie Owens, far right) and Nanetta (Claire Ormshaw).

Janice Watson, as Alice Ford in Verdi's "Falstaff"

Alice Ford (Janice Watson, center) explains her plans to trick Falstaff to Meg Page (Immelda Drumm, left), Mistress Quickly (Anne-Marie Owens, far right) and Nanetta (Claire Ormshaw).

ACT ONE: The opera is set in Windsor in the early 15th Century, during the reign of Henry the 4th.

Sir John Falstaff is sitting at a table in the Garter Inn, with his scruffy companions Bardolfo and Pistola. They're knights who've all seen better days. Falstaff is putting two letters into envelopes when Dr. Caius enters and accuses the men of robbing him.

Nobody has the money to pay the bar bill, and Falstaff reveals his plan to improve their luck. His envelopes contain love letters to two wealthy women, Alice Ford and Meg Page. When he asks Bardolfo and Pistola to deliver the letters, the men refuse, citing ethical concerns. So Falstaff gives them to a messenger instead, then rails against his buddies and chases them from the inn.

In the next scene, Alice and her daughter Nanetta are in their garden talking to Meg and Mistress Quickly. When they discover they're holding identical letters from Falstaff, they decide to get even with him.

As they leave, Alice's husband, Ford, arrives with Caius, Fenton, Bardolfo, and Pistola. They all warn Ford about Falstaff's designs. When they're alone for a minute, Nannetta and Fenton, her secret lover, share a few stolen 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, the men and women sing of their plots, determined to cut the fat knight down to size.

As ACT TWO opens, we're back at the Garter Inn, where Falstaff pretends to accept apologies from Bardolfo and Pistola. Mistress Quickly enters and assures Falstaff that both Alice and Meg return his affections. After arranging a meeting with Alice, Falstaff gives Mistress Quickly a puny tip, then prances and preens for everyone.

Ford enters, disguised as Master Brook. He says he's also in love with Alice, but she doesn't feel the same. Falstaff brags that he's all set to meet with Alice. Then he steps out to get himself ready. Ford is furious, and swears revenge. Pulling himself together when Falstaff returns, he and the fat knight then 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 — all except for Alice, who sits strumming a lute. Falstaff begins to brag about his youth, when he was a handsome, slender thing. But he's cut short when Mistress Quickly returns to announce that Meg is coming. Falstaff jumps behind a screen to hide.

Meg arrives and announces that a very angry Ford is on the way. When Ford gets there, he and his men search the house and Falstaff hides in a basket of dirty laundry, but has a hard time breathing. Meg and Mistress Quickly try to muffle his gasps. Ford, hearing some sounds, knocks over the screen, only to find Fenton and Nanetta behind it, sneaking a kiss. Then everyone runs upstairs, where Alice orders her servants to dump the laundry basket into the Thames. Alice and her husband look out the window to see Falstaff ignominiously blubbering in the water.

ACT THREE opens with Falstaff— where else?—but back at the Garter Inn, drinking. He meditates about his soggy adventure, his big belly and the joys wine provides, but his musing is brought to an end when Mistress Quickly arrives. She insists that Alice is still in love with him. And to prove it, she produces a note from Alice urging a midnight tryst in Windsor Park, under the big oak tree.

Then Mistress Quickly distracts Falstaff with a spooky tale of the Black Huntsman's ghost, who haunts Windsor Park. While she's regaling Falstaff, Alice, Ford, Meg, Caius, and Fenton sneak in. They concoct a plot to scare Falstaff by dressing up as spirits.

The final scene takes place in the moonlit Forest. Fenton is disguised as a monk, Nannetta as queen of the fairies, Meg a nymph, and Mistress Quickly a witch. But they all scatter when Falstaff comes tromping in, dressed as a hunter and wearing antlers.

Just as he greets Alice, Meg — the nymph — warns of approaching demons. Falstaff shudders and cowers, while Nanetta calls on the forest creatures. They come out, prodding, poking and pinching Falstaff, who finally is so undone he rolls around on the ground begging for mercy. Then he recognizes Bardolfo behind one of the masks. He's confused only for a second then comes out with a big, booming laugh. Falstaff may be a braggart and a cheat, but nobody can say he doesn't have a sense of humor.

Alice brings forward two brides and two grooms, all still in disguise. Before he quite realizes what he's doing, Ford marries off his daughter Nanetta to her lover Fenton. Alas, he's been tricked. But he gives his blessing nonetheless, and Falstaff leads the entire company in declaring: "Everything in the world is a joke" — bringing Verdi's last opera to a rousing end.

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