“Falstaff” an opera in three acts, with music by Giuseppe Verdi and text arranged after Shakespeare by Arrigo Boito, had its first performance at La Scala, Milan, March 12, 1893.
Sir John Falstaff. Master Ford. Master Fenton. Dr. Caius. Bardolph, followers of Falstaff. Pistol, Mrs. Alice Ford. Mrs. Quickly. Mrs. Page. Nannetta, her daughter. Host of the Garter Tavern. Robin, page to Falstaff. A page to Master Ford. Town and country people, Ford’s servants. Scene, Windsor Forest in the reign of Henry IV.
The libretto is based mainly upon the ” Merry Wives of Windsor,” which Shakespeare is said to have written in compliance with the wish of Queen Elizabeth to see the ” Fat Knight ” in love. Boito’s arrangement is supplemented with several passages from ” Henry IV.”
In the first act, Falstaff and his henchmen, Bardolph and Pistol, are discovered eating and drinking mightily at the Garter Tavern. They exchange compliments with Dr. Caius, who accuses them of emptying his purse while he slept. He and Pistol engage in a verbal battle in which such choice epithets as ” sprout of the mandragora ” and ” yardstick ” are hurled as missiles, while the fat knight looks on with magnificent condescension and occasionally lets drop some maxim from a very practical philosophy.
Falstaff, it develops, has fallen in love with the Mesdames Ford and Page, the Merry Wives. He bids Bardolph and Pistol carry to them each a billet-doux. They refuse to meddle in the matter, their ” honor ” forbidding. The mention of this superfluous little word gives occasion for the famous monologue from ” Henry IV.” depicting the impotency of honor.
In the second scene of Act I, we are introduced to the joke-loving Merry Wives to whom a page has delivered the fat knight’s ” inflammatory” epistles. Under a promise of secrecy, they tell each other of ” such an adventure ” and find that the poetical effusions with which they have been favored are alike and from the same gallant. They plot to take a merry revenge upon their amorous ” wine-cask.”
The treacherous, time-serving Bardolph and Pistol warn Ford of the designs of the obese Don Juan, virtuously referring to the fact that they have refused to carry his messages. While the injured husband is preparing a frustration, Nannetta (sweet Anne Page) and her adorer, Fenton, make love delightfully. The curtain falls as the Merry Wives conclude the arrangements for the practical joke and, with shaking sides, quote from their love-letters,
Your lovely eyes shall shine on me, Like stars from the immensity.
The curtain of the second act rises to discover Falstaff drinking sack at the Garter Tavern. Thither comes Mrs. Quickly to tell him that the ladies are flattered and would meet him.
” You bewitch them all,” sighs the gossip.
“‘Tis not witchery,” explains the modest Sir John, ” but a certain personal fascination.”
The jealous Ford visits Falstaff, under the name of Brook, and by means of a demijohn of Cyprus wine, craftily draws from him a boastful admission of his con-quest of Mrs. Alice, even disclosing the hour of the visit he is about to pay her.
Falstaff excuses himself as the happy moment approaches and leaves Ford engaged in concealing his wrath. Mrs. Quickly precedes him to inform the Merry Wives that he has ” fallen into the trap like a stone.” Nannetta alone of all the company is not in convulsions of laughter, and, upon being questioned, confides to her mother that the course of true love is not running smoothly with her for her father wants her to marry fussy old Dr. Caius. She confesses a preference for being stoned alive and her mother promises to help her out of the dilemma.
When all have concealed themselves around a corner, waiting to enjoy the culmination of the joke, Falstaff enters and proves himself master of the honeyed phraseology of love. He is interrupted in his puffy protestations by the warning that Ford is coming ” hard on his track, . . . filled with tremendous rage and cursing all the daughters of Eve.”
The women hastily conceal him in the buck-basket and nearly smother him with soiled linen. Ford, with Bardolph and Pistol and all the neighbors, rage about the house and Nannetta and Fenton take advantage of the hubbub to continue their love-making behind a screen, from which suddenly is heard the sound of a rapturous kiss. All advance cautiously, remembering that ” a man of that size cannot be routed with a breath.” The screen is upset and Nannetta is disclosed blushing in Fenton’s arms. Now orders are given to chuck the family washing into the Thames and in spite of the protests of the contents of the buck-basket, this is done.
In the third act, Falstaff is seen at his old haunt, the Garter Tavern, musing on the rascally world and calling for mulled sack to soothe his ruffled feelings. While in this mood, he is approached by Mrs. Quickly with an elaborate explanation that the buck-basket episode was no fault of the lovely Alice and that she fain would see him again. A little flattery does the work and Falstaff agrees to a midnight meeting at Herne’s Oak, he to be in the disguise of the Black Huntsman. It is a weird company which awaits his arrival in Windsor Forest. Fenton is Oberon, Nannetta the queen of the fairies and there are troops of hobgoblins, sprites and elves. Falstaff is no laggard in love but is on hand at the stroke of midnight dressed as Herne the Huntsman. The supernatural bevy lies low while he greets his mistress but, at a signal from Bardolph, they fall upon him and pinch him, claw him and roll him about until he cries for mercy. Finally the breath-less old sinner recognizes Bardolph by his red nose and begins to suspect that he has ” been made an ass of.”
Page thinks to celebrate the fat knight’s discomfiture by the marriage of his daughter to Caius who is to be disguised as a monk; but it is Fenton behind the cowl and the true lovers are united instead. Page is inclined to be forgiving and everybody goes off to supper, still shaking with laughter over the night’s adventure.
Falstaff ” is in every respect a remarkable work. It was composed when Verdi was eighty years of age but shows no signs of falling off in power. On the contrary, musical authorities esteem it to be his masterpiece, albeit the general public has been slow in its acceptance of the great work. It is filled with the spirit of youth and of joy. It ripples with laughter and true musical humor from beginning to end, although not without occasional moments of exquisite tenderness. Boito’s libretto borders on perfection, one critic declaring it ” probably the best written and planned book ever presented to a composer.” He has translated Shakespeare with love and respect and has preserved admirably the spirit and the English flavor. When ” Falstaff ” was first presented at La Scala Theatre, it was acclaimed one of the greatest works ever heard within those famous walls.
As to notable passages in the opera, which has, by the way, no overture nor prelude there may be mentioned an effective chattering quartet in E major for the women’s voices, unaccompanied, the reading of Falstaff’s love-letters; the “Honor ” soliloquy; the ensemble music of the second act, the buck-basket episode; the fat knight’s famous scherzetto, ” When I was page to the Duke of Norfolk’s grace ; ” the love duet of Nannetta and Fenton ; Nannetta’s song in the scene of the haunted forest and the wonderful vocal fugue which brings the work to a close.