Commedia lirica in three acts (1893)
Arrigo Boito after William Shakespeares »The Merry Wives of Windsor«
At the age of almost 80, Giuseppe Verdi, who had long since become a legend, once again achieved a sensational success with this opera. Using the brilliant libretto of the much younger Arrigo Boito as a starting point, he created a masterpiece of comic opera after five decades of tragic works. Both wise and revealing, full of caricatures and yet with the most detailed characterisation, the ageing Verdi’s »Falstaff« attained a very natural and figurative musical language full of wordplay, rhythmic finesse and musical associations. Far stronger than in his earlier works, the orchestra makes a quick-witted and pithy commentary throughout the piece. Boito’s libretto, on the other hand, is bursting with virtuoso language and poetry. With his larger-than-life stage characters, turbulent ensembles and situational parodies, this work turns out to be an invaluable source of inspiration for truly global music theatre, just as Shakespeare would have wished.
Part one – Dr. Cajus is furious: he claims that Falstaff’s buddies Bardolfo and Pistola got him drunk last night and then robbed him. Sir John Falstaff shows himself unimpressed by the accusations and sends him off without a response—but not without taking Bardolfo and Pistola to task for their sloppily executed theft. And yet, he is also plagued by pecuniary concerns, since although it has been a long time since he has seen better days, he and his cohorts are all living beyond their means. So Falstaff connives to combine the useful with the pleasant and decides to make advances at the attractive, married women Alice Ford and Meg Page by sending them letters: not only will this serve to demonstrate the never-ebbing seductive arts of Falstaff, now getting on in years, but the well-situated women would also offer financial benefits as well. Bardolfo and Pistola, citing their honor, refuse to deliver the immoral love missives. So Falstaff sends the page Robin to deliver the letters, takes Bardolfo and Pistola to task and chases them away.
Part two – The letters have just reached their addressees when the purported targets of affection compare the two documents and realize that they are completely identical, except for the salutation. Alice and Meg are eager to get back at Falstaff, and concoct a plan together with Mrs Quickly and Alice’s daughter Nannetta: Falstaff is to be invited to a rendezvous with Alice, where he can be tricked. Mrs Quickly is selected to bring Falstaff the message personally.
In the meantime, Bardolfo and Pistola, promising themselves a reward, have changed sides and reveal Falstaff’s plans of seduction to Mr Ford. The constantly jealous Ford’s suspicions are now awakened, for he does not think that his wife’s sense of fidelity could hold up to such an attack. With Cajus, his desired son in law, and Fenton he conjures up a plan: Bardolfo and Pistola are to return to Falstaff, apparently contrite, to arrange an audience for Ford under a false name, in order to find out what his wife’s answer will turn out to be.
In the meantime, Nannetta, Ford’s daughter, and Fenton have a secret: they have just fallen in love and use every unnoticed moment to exchange tender caresses.
Part one – According to plan, Bardolfo and Pistola feign contriteness to Falstaff and return to their work. Just after arriving, a visitor is announced: Mrs Quickly tricks Falstaff by announcing the success of his love letters. Both Meg and Alice were now ravenously in love with him, she claims. But while Meg is watched carefully each day around the clock by her husband, Mr Ford is away everyday from two to three in the afternoon. Falstaff sees himself as soon having achieved his goal of having Alice in his arms.
The next guest arrives immediately afterward: it is Ford in disguise, introducing himself as an affluent Signor Fontana. He says he is undyingly in love with the beautiful Alice, but until now has only met with rejection. He proposes that, in return for a financial reward, Falstaff, as the more likely candidate, should seduce the modest woman to make it easier for him to make his move, since she will have already committed adultery. Thrilled by such prospects, Falstaff readily agrees and reports of the meeting that had just been planned. Ford is stunned.
Part two – Mrs Quickly announces Falstaff’s upcoming arrival to Alice. Alice, with Meg and Nannetta, is preparing everything for the rendezvous. While doing so, Nannetta in tears announces her father’s plans for her marriage. The friends both find the old Cajus an unsuitable husband and promise to help. Then they all withdraw when the expected Falstaff appears and overwhelms Alice with flattery. But he doesn’t have much time, for now Meg bursts in to warn, as planned, of the supposed arrival of the jealous Ford. While Falstaff looks for a place to hide, Mrs Quickly, in shock, announces the actual arrival of the furious husband. In accordance with the original plan, Falstaff is hidden in the laundry basket. Ford searches the house with Cajus, Bardolfo, and Pistola, but finds nothing, until he hears something suspicious behind a folding screen. But instead of Falstaff and Alice, he finds his daughter and Fenton kissing one another. Alice carries out the last part of her plan with Falstaff and has the laundry with its heavy load emptied into the nearby river.
Part one – Falstaff is quite cross about his failure, and full of resentment against the entire world. It is only with effort can Mrs Quickly convince him that his misadventure was not Alice’s doing. She invites him to another, midnight rendezvous outside. Falstaff agrees.
In the meantime, the Fords, now reconciled with one another, conjure up the following plan: at the planned meeting point, costumed mythical creatures should give Falstaff a good scare. The women plan accordingly. Ford tells Cajus that he should take advantage of the confusion, abduct Nannetta and marry her. But Mrs Quickly overhears this conversation.
Part two – Alice doesn't want to leave her daughter in Cajus’ hands, and so she quickly changes the clothing in which Cajus is supposed to recognize Nannetta that night. Falstaff approaches the meeting point. Again, he is only given just a brief moment with Alice before the masquerade begins. All sorts of dark figures descend upon him and want to force him to forgive. Finally, Falstaff recognizes Bardolfo in the mob and so sees through the show. Ford triumphs over Falstaff and wants to crown the masquerade by presenting the freshly married couple. But Cajus is forced to realize that Bardolfo is concealed beneath the veil. Alice presents the married Nannetta with Fenton at her side and explains the mix up. Falstaff sums up that all have been tricked in this game.