Major Operas | Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi | High Romantic

Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff was the third taken from William Shakespeare, this time from his Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Verdi wrote the opera when he was 79, but it was not his only comic opera, as is often supposed. There was another, Un giorno di Regno, which he wrote more than 50 years before, in 1840.

Un giorno had failed and ever since, Verdi longed to write another comic opera. However, he did not appear to envisage staging it: he wrote Falstaff, he told his publisher Ricordi just to amuse himself and pass the time. His librettist, Boito, had other ideas: he nagged Verdi to get on with Falstaff and the composer worked on it two hours a day for two years before the finished opera premiered at La Scala, Milan on 9 February 1893.

Falstaff is an opera in which ensemble singing is prominent and in no way did it show Verdi’s great age. On the contrary, it is fresh, high-spirited, with schoolboy zest and a mischievous sense of fun, all of it underlined by Verdi’s quicksilver music. The first-night audience demanded two encores and the ovations lasted half an hour.

Composed: 1889–92
Premiered: 1893, Milan
Libretto by Arrigo Boito, after William Shakespeare

Act I

At the Garter Inn, Caius accuses Falstaff and his cronies Pistol and Bardolph of theft, which they deny. The time comes to pay the bill and Falstaff laments his lack of funds. He announces his plans to woo the wives of two wealthy gentlemen and writes love letters to the ladies – Alice Ford and Meg Page – asking Pistol and Bardolph to deliver them. When they refuse, Falstaff chases them from the inn and entrusts the letters to a pageboy.

Alice and Meg, along with Mistress Quickly and Alice’s daughter Nanetta, discuss their letters from Falstaff. It transpires that they have received identical letters, and they decide to play a trick on Falstaff. While Nanetta embraces Fenton, her sweetheart, Pistol and Bardolph inform Ford of Falstaff’s designs on his wife. Outraged, Ford decides to introduce himself to Falstaff in disguise, so that he can keep an eye on him. The ladies agree that Mrs Quickly should visit Falstaff and put their plan into action.

Act II

Pistol and Bardolph join Falstaff at the inn and feign regret at having refused to carry out his orders. Mistress Quickly enters and assures Falstaff that both Meg and Alice return his love, adding that Alice will see him that afternoon. Ford enters, as Master Brook, and asks Falstaff to help him court Alice. To his horror, Falstaff boasts that he is meeting her that very day. Mrs Quickly reports back to the other women. Nannetta laments that her father is forcing her to marry Caius, when she loves Fenton; Alice reassures her. Falstaff arrives and Alice is left alone with him. He declares his love for her but is interrupted...

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