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Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
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 Verdis interest and enthusiasm for his treatment of Shakespeares 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 Verdis eightieth year, 1893.
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. Bardolphs 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.
3 The scene is a garden. To the left is Fords 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 Alices. 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 Falstaffs plot against his wife. Nannettas 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.
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 Fords 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. Falstaffs 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 Fords 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 cuckolds 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.
Alice Ford and Meg Page, joined in Fords house by Mistress Quickly, make ready their plot against Falstaff, with a laundry-basket prepared for the knights concealment and discomfiture. Nannetta, in tears, tells of her fathers 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