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8.555846 - VERDI: Falstaff (Highlights)
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Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Falstaff (Highlights)

In the nineteenth century the plays of Shakespeare exercised renewed fascination over the romantic imagination. This was reflected in the theatre, in translations, in art and in music. Earlier Shakespearian subjects had been suggested to Verdi, but it was in 1847 that he completed his very successful Macbeth, a strong subject in its drama and equally attractive in the exoticism of its Scottish setting. It was not, however, until 1879 that he was persuaded to undertake a second Shakespearian opera, based on Othello, with a libretto by Arrigo Boito. This had its first performance at La Scala in 1887 and was to be followed by one more opera, this time on a comic subject. Boito by 1889 had aroused Verdi’s interest and enthusiasm for his treatment of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The score of Falstaff was completed in December 1892 and the opera given its first performance at La Scala in Verdi’s eightieth year, 1893.

Synopsis

Act I

Part 1

1 In The Garter Inn Falstaff is sitting at a table, with its remains of a meal, bottles and tankard, and writing materials. He is busy sealing two letters. Dr Caius bursts in, with complaints against Falstaff, who pays him no attention, instead calling out to the landlord for another bottle of sack. Caius continues with his accusations: Falstaff has worn out his horse, violated his house; he will have justice and appeal to the Royal Council. Falstaff is unmoved, but Caius continues, now calling for Bardolph, whom he accuses of making him drunk. Bardolph agrees and could himself do with a prescription from the doctor for his sufferings and for his red, shining nose. Caius accuses him of deliberately making him drunk and then picking his pockets. Bardolph denies it, and Falstaff calls for Pistol. Caius at once accuses him of stealing money. Pistol and Caius shout abuse at each other, but Bardolph settles matters by claiming that Caius has dreamed the whole thing under the table. Falstaff delivers judgement: the facts are denied, go in peace. Caius leaves, swearing he will only drink again with honest, sober people, and to this Bardolph and Pistol provide a contrapuntal Amen. Falstaff silences them and tells them to have more discretion in their stealing. He looks at the mounting inn bill, making the two men turn out their pockets, since they are costing him a fortune in drink. Falstaff continues to inveigh against his followers. Bardolph’s glowing nose saves them oil, as they go from inn to inn, but makes up for that in the wine consumed, over the last thirty years. He calls for another bottle; if Falstaff grows thin, he will be nothing. Bardolph and Pistol praise immense, enormous Falstaff.

2 Falstaff has written letters to Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, proposing love to each, and now tells Pistol and Bardolph to deliver them, but they refuse, on grounds of honour. Angrily he calls for his page, who scurries out with the two letters, leaving him to vent his fury on his two followers; they have no honour, but, in any case, honour is a mere word. This philosophy is in musical contrast with the angry abuse he hurls at Bardolph and Pistol, as he chases them out.

Part 2

3 The scene is a garden. To the left is Ford’s house, to which Mistress Page and Mistress Quickly approach, meeting Mistress Ford and her daughter Nannetta, who are coming out. Alice Ford was just about to call on Meg Page, to enjoy a joke with her. Something odd has happened; both have received strange letters. These they exchange and Meg reads out Alice’s. The two love letters from Falstaff are identical, apart from the names of those to whom they are addressed. Amused by the whole thing, they read out identical phrases in turn or together, and resolve to lead him on and make a fool of him. They go out, while Caius, Ford, Fenton, Bardolph and Pistol come in, all of them angry with Falstaff. Caius is still furious at his treatment, while Ford has learned from Bardolph and Pistol of Falstaff’s plot against his wife. Nannetta’s lover, Fenton, in turn, would be happy to join in against Falstaff.

4 The other men go, leaving Fenton, who whispers quickly to Nannetta, seeking two hurried kisses. He praises the beauty of her lips and eyes, while she urges caution. They move apart, as the other women return. They resolve to make a fool of Falstaff by pretending to respond positively to his overtures: Mistress Quickly must take a message arranging a secret meeting with Alice Ford. They are delighted at the joke they are about to play, when Mistress Quickly sees someone coming, and the older women withdraw. The lovers alone once more, Fenton returns to the assault. He tries to kiss Nannetta.

They leave, and the men return, as Ford plots his own revenge, planning to go to Falstaff in disguise. Meanwhile the women lay their own plot.

Act II

Part 1

Falstaff is sitting in The Garter Inn, drinking sack, joined now by Bardolph and Pistol, both seemingly expressing penitence. They want to return to his service. Bardolph tells Falstaff that there is a woman waiting to be admitted.

 

5 Mistress Quickly makes her obeisance to Falstaff, asking for a few words in secret and he grants her an audience, signalling his two followers to leave. She explains how Alice Ford is madly in love with him, while Falstaff blandly accepts her compliments on his powers of seduction. Mistress Ford’s husband is generally out between two and three, when he can easily meet her, poor lady, with her husband so jealous. Mistress Quickly now gets into her stride with a second message, this time from Mistress Page, whose husband is not often away. Falstaff’s seductive abilities must be witchcraft, she adds, but Falstaff puts them down simply to personal fascination. He rewards Mistress Quickly, who takes her formal leave of him.

6 Alice is his, Falstaff exclaims in delight: he may be old, but he still has the power to attract women.

7 Bardolph ushers in Ford, disguised as Fontana (Brook), followed by Pistol. He greets Falstaff with formality, explaining that there is in Windsor a certain Alice, wife of one Ford, whom he has wooed in vain; she has left him disappointed, but he will pay Falstaff to seduce her, thereby opening the way for other suitors. Falstaff reveals that he already has an assignation arranged with her, to Ford’s consternation. He asks if Falstaff knows the husband, and Falstaff claims that he does; Ford is a bumpkin, an ox soon to be a cuckold. He goes to prepare himself for his rendez-vous.

8 Ford does not know whether he is dreaming, as he imagines himself with a cuckold’s horns. He bursts out in jealousy, vowing to catch his wife with Falstaff and take revenge. Falstaff, happily unaware, now returns, with a new doublet and hat and carrying a stick, prepared for his adventure. He invites Ford to accompany him part of the way, and there is a polite conflict as to who shall go through the door first, solved only when they agree to go out arm in arm together.

 

Part 2

Alice Ford and Meg Page, joined in Ford’s house by Mistress Quickly, make ready their plot against Falstaff, with a laundry-basket prepared for the knight’s concealment and discomfiture. Nannetta, in tears, tells of her father’s decision that she marry Dr Caius, but is reassured by her mother. Falstaff is approaching, and the women quickly take up their positions.

9 As Falstaff enters, Alice is playing the lute, to which he sings and goes on to express the wish that Ford would die and allow her to become Lady Falstaff. He praises her, imagining her ornamented with jewels. She, however, prefers greater simplicity. Falstaff declares his passion, and recalls his youth, describing his early years as page to the Duke of Norfolk.

News of the approach of Ford, with his friends, at first feigned according to plan and then really happening, compels Falstaff to hide, at first behind a screen and then in the laundry-basket that Ford has already searched. Servants empty the basket into the river, to general amusement, in which Ford joins.

Act III

Part 1

10 It is sunset and Falstaff is sitting outside the inn, thinking. He jumps up and strikes the table with his hand, calling for the inn-keeper. Bitterly he contemplates the treachery of the world, and orders wine from the landlord, complaining at his treatment, thrown into the water with a basket of dirty washing, only kept afloat by his paunch. Poignantly he sees his own state and age. Wine does something to revive him.

Mistress Quickly enters, persuading Falstaff to a second tryst. He must disguise himself as Herne, the Black Huntsman, and meet Alice Ford at midnight at the ghostly Herne’s Oak in Windsor Forest. The plotters prepare their disguises, and the women are ready to frustrate Ford’s plan of marrying his daughter Nannetta to Dr Caius.

Part 2

11 It is night in Windsor Park, by the great oak-tree, Herne’s Oak. Around there is dense foliage and bushes. Distant foresters’ horns are heard, as the moon comes out and the scene gradually becomes clearer. Fenton enters, singing his song of love. Nannetta comes in, dressed as the Fairy Queen, followed by Alice, with a black cloak and mask for Fenton. Mistress Quickly is dressed as the Epiphany witch and tells them that she plans to dress Bardolph as the bride for Caius. Meg appears, dressed in green, and tells Alice that children, disguised as imps and elves, are ready in the ditch behind them. They hide, as Falstaff is heard approaching.

At the first stroke of midnight Falstaff appears, wearing a cloak and antlers, and approaches the haunted oak-tree. Alice is coming, but followed by Meg, who cries out that the witches are coming. Alice makes her escape, leaving Falstaff cowering in terror.

12 Nannetta as the Fairy Queen is heard calling her nymphs, elves, and spirits. Falstaff is terrified at the sound. Nannetta appears and Alice, with children dressed as fairies. Falstaff lies stretched out on the ground in fear, trying to hide, for the sight of these spirits means death. Nannetta sings an ethereal fairy song, bidding her fairies dance. Her words and song reflect the beauty of the midnight scene, as she tells the fairies to gather flowers and to write secret names on them. They approach the oak, as they sing.

The conspirators return, in their disguises, and taunt Falstaff, as the fairies pinch him. He eventually recognises Bardolph, and begs them to stop, while Mistress Quickly disguises Bardolph as the bride that Dr Caius had expected. Alice now reveals Signor Fontana, Master Brook, as her husband, and Mistress Quickly tells Falstaff of his folly in imagining that two women could be so stupid as to fall for a dirty, fat old man, bald and corpulent. Falstaff realises that he has been made a fool of, a conclusion that brings only laughter from his tormentors.

13 Falstaff, as always, seeks to retrieve something from the situation, not only witty himself, but the cause of wit in others. Ford announces the coming wedding of the Fairy Queen, Bardolph suitably disguised, and Dr Caius, who are brought forward. Alice leads forward Nannetta and Fenton, a second couple in a double wedding. They are married, but when Ford tells them to unveil, he realises what has happened. Caius has been tricked into marrying Bardolph, while Fenton is now married to Nannetta. Falstaff asks who is now the fool, and Alice tells them that all three are, Falstaff, Ford and Caius. Nannetta seeks pardon from her father.

14 Ford grants it, to general delight, and proposes that they should all now go and feast with Falstaff, who calls for a chorus to end the scene. This is a splendid fugue, started by Falstaff to the words Tutto nel mondo è burla: everything in the world is a joke; everyone is made fun of, but he laughs best who has the last laugh.

Keith Anderson


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