“The Merry Wives of Windsor,” is a comic opera in three acts, its score by Otto Nicolai and its text by H. S. Mosenthal. It was first presented in Berlin, March 9, 1849.
Mrs. Ford Mrs. Page Anne Page Fenton Mr. Ford Mr. Page Slender Dr. Caius A servant Sir John Falstaff. Citizens of Windsor, mythological maskers, servants.
The story is too similar to that of Verdi’s opera, ” Falstaff,” to need long description. Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, two ladies of Windsor, simultaneously receive love-letters from Sir John Falstaff, a gentleman of remarkable girth. They plot together to play a practical joke on him, which shall make him regret his folly. Mrs. Ford summons Falstaff to her house and Mrs. Page writes her husband an anonymous letter warning him of what is going on in his absence. In consequence, Ford comes suddenly upon the scene and knocks at the door. The two women, apparently in great terror, tumble the huge fellow into a basket designed to hold the family washing and bury him under soiled clothing from which, with comical effect, he occasionally emerges for some amorous expression. The servants are summoned to carry out the basket and throw it in the water. Ford, finding the house empty, is ashamed of his suspicions and his wife is so hurt by his injustice that she faints with great effect. In an earlier scene in the act, Page is besieged by three suitors for the hand of his daughter Anne. They are the rich but stupid Slender whom Page favors; Dr. Caius, the celebrated French physician, his wife’s choice; the penniless Fenton, whom the maiden herself desires.
Act II passes at the Garter Inn at Windsor. Falstaff enters in great excitement, disheveled and covered with mud and possessed of a mighty thirst for wine. He fancies the sad affair the result of an accident and, when a note comes from Mrs. Ford, telling him when her husband will be away with a hunting party, he readily accepts the bait and reveals everything to Ford, who comes disguised as Brook to the Inn. In consequence, that injured gentleman again arrives inopportunely and the buck-basket is again suggested by the ladies, but the Fat Knight demurs and this time is hastily dressed in feminine attire. Ford takes him for an old mischief-making fortune-teller and gives him a sound beating.
Several scenes are devoted to Anne’s lovers, who hide in bushes around the house and vow to slay each other. Fenton alone has an interview and is happy.
Act III takes place in Ford’s house. The matter has been explained satisfactorily to its master, and the “merry husbands ” now take a hand in a plot to further punish Falstaff. Accordingly, Mrs. Ford arranges a midnight meeting with him at Herne’s Oak in Windsor Park, where he is to come as Herne the Hunter. Both Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page are at the rendezvous and he gallantly makes love to both at the same time. Ford, disguised as the real Herne, falls upon him for imitating him and calls upon all the assembled wasps and hornets to sting him to repentance. The terrified Falstaff confesses all and begs for pardon. When the throng unmask, he recognizes the Ford and Page families and all their neighbors.
Earlier in the day, Mrs. Page has whispered instructions to her daughter to be dressed as a pink fairy in which guise Dr. Caius will take her to the forest chapel to be married. Her father has drawn her aside, and told her to dress as a green fairy and Slender will go through the same proceeding. The sly Anne sends a pink dress to Caius, and a green one to Slender, and the two find to their horror that they have married each other. In the meantime, Anne as a white fairy and Fenton as Oberon have had performed the ceremony so long desired by them.
Nicolai’s work is a capital adaptation of Shakespeare’s mirth-provoking play. It is full of spontaneous good humor and captivating melody. -Its orchestration is admirable. It has long been one of the most popular of comic operas but its composer was not to know of the success destined for it, as he died of apoplexy a short time after the score was finished.
Among the portions of the work that deservedly have found admiration are the delightful overture, which is a universal favorite; the comparing of the love-letters by Mesdames Ford and Page; Mrs. Ford’s soliloquy, ” Come now and aid me, thou woman’s treach’ry,” ending with the aria, ” What would be life then?” the drinking song of Falstaff and his followers at the Tavern; Fenton’s serenade, ” Sweetly sings the nightingale ; ” the trio of Falstaff and the Merry Wives, ” The Bell has pealed the Midnight chime ” and the duet of Anne and Fenton, ” Now tranquil nature lies in deep repose.”