Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” may not be his greatest comedy but it certainly is the one that has attracted more composers than any of his others. Written (legend says) at the request of Queen Elizabeth who wanted to see the Fat Knight in Love, it shows all the signs of great haste. It is also, as many have commented, not about the Great Falstaff of the “Henry IV” plays but the Lesser One; not the Falstaff who is the cause of merriment in others but the dupe and gull of others; not the Falstaff who can see through every pretension because he himself is the ultimate con-man but the Falstaff who can be fooled by three women with very little effort.
Of the five operas that we will consider, the “Falstaff” of Antonio Salieri is the first. First shown in 1799 with a libretto by Carlo Prospers Defranceshi, it reduces Shakespeare’s cast of 20 to 7: Falstaff and his servant Bardolfo, Mr and Mrs Ford, Mr and Mrs Slender (instead of Page), and a maid called Betty. The first act shows Falstaff acting the fool at a party and the rest of the play pretty closely follows the original, including the episode of Falstaff in drag. The best scene is the one in which Mrs Slender (in the absence of Quickly) comes in disguise to Falstaff, professing to speak only German and a few words of English while Falstaff is in the opposite linguistic boat (all the while singing, of course, in Italian).
Modern audiences will not approve of the long passages of dry recite, but the streamlined version moves quickly and there are many funny moments. There are, alas, very few musical ones that will linger in the memory. Fortunately there is a DVD of a recent production available on the Arthaus Musik label (100 023), from which you can draw your own conclusions.
The 1849 “Die Lustigen Wieber von Windsor” by Otto Nicolai is only partly in the opera buffa tradition. The duet between Falstaff and the disguised husband is indeed labeled “buffa duet” in some libretti; but here we have lots of that early German Romanticism that works wonders in the Windsor Forest scene that ends the play. The cast is now up to 9 characters: Herr and Frau Fluth (“Brook”), Herr and Frau Reich with daughter Anna, Fenton, Spaerlich (Slender), Dr. Caius, and of course Falstaff but without his companions. The libretto of Hermann von Mosenthal is extremely faithful to its source. In true opera tradition, Falstaff is given a drinking song that turns out to be Feste’s “Wind and the Rain” ditty from “Twelfth Night.” The joke here is that it is sung laboriously by the Fat Man and is punctuated by “eins, zwei, drei” as he guzzles down his drinks.
There is a German made-for-television film that has never been reissued on tape or DVD. Why not?
Although Verdi’s “Falstaff” should come next historically, I want to devote an entire article to it. So let us skip to two English works.
In 1924, Gustav Holst had completed his “At the Boar’s Head, Op. 42,” a short musical treatment of scenes from “Henry IV, Parts I and II.” What Holst did here was to retain abridged versions of Shakespeare’s very lines, interpolating Sonnets XIX and XII and a few traditional songs. Naturally, setting prose to music does not produce many memorable melodies. But we have here the Great Falstaff and the general effect is very effective indeed. Perhaps some local opera group would consider reviving this worthy work. There is a recording on EMI (65127 2) that is quite good.
“Sir John in Love” (1929) has both words and music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is my special favorite for one reason. The composer has incorporated within his score some of the loveliest of English folk songs and they work like a charm! Even one hearing will reveal the beauty of this score; but unfortunately there do not seem to be many copies available of the excellent EMI recording of 1975 that was released on CDs in 1997 with Meredith Davies conducting. If you can find a copy, grab it. I got mine through Amazon.com. A video is yet to be made. Why not?
The cast is back to 20 with one or two changes from the original and the incident of Falstaff dressed as an old woman is dropped. (Boito too did not include it in his streamlined libretto for Verdi.) Indeed a good deal of the dialogue is dropped to make room for the interpolated songs. But since all of them are either from Shakespeare’s own plays or from his times, I would say that this is closest in spirit to the original than any of the others.
And so, this leaves us with the Verdi work that shows us the complete marriage of drama and music in the Italian’s view of things, not the Wagnerian one. There was no doubt in Verdi’s mind that “Aida” was to be his last opera, just as there had been no doubt that “Don Carlos” before it was to be the last. But ironically, fate sent the most outspoken critic of Italian music many years before (and Italian music meant Verdi’s music), a young rebel named Arrigo Boito, who offered the maestro a libretto that he couldn’t refuse.
Having had to do his best with a not quite up to snuff libretto for his “Macbetto” and never having realized his lifelong ambition to compose “Il Re Lear,” Verdi saw at once the musical possibilities in Boito’s libretto for “Otello,” about which I will have much to say in some future article. Well, that would definitely be the last opera. Until, of course, Boito’s next libretto, “Falstaff,” was presented; and … what can one do?
Only once before Verdi had tried a comic opera. Back in 1840 his “Giorno di regno” was hooted off the stage and Verdi knew he would never be a composer. The legend he made up about how the libretto to “Nabucco,” thrust into his pocket by his impresario, happened to fall open to the chorus of Hebrew slaves is no longer believed but is too picturesque to be forgotten. At any rate, Verdi was 76 years old when “Falstaff” came his way; but no one hearing it would guess the age of the composer of such light and witty music.
On the other hand, no one but a very mature and experienced one could come the closest Italian opera had known up to then to a totally integrated music/drama. And that in a most un-Wagnerian way. The only similarities between Verdi and the German is that the music runs almost seamlessly from section to section with only two “arias”–one of which lasts little more than a minute and the other which is never completed–and only one duet for the lovers that is twice interrupted by the entrance of the other characters.
The Wives are named Page and Ford but Mr. Page is written out of the script. Falstaff is accompanied now by Bardolfo and Pistola, Dame Quickly is the go-between, Anne is called Nannetta, Fenton is her tenor lover, while Dr. Caius and the Host round out the cast and give two more voices to the ensembles.
Boito includes passages from the “Henry IV” histories so that we have a (forgive me) weightier Falstaff than the one in Salieri, Nicolai and Vaughan Williams, but a more inconsistent one. Would a man who can sing the speech about Honor be so easily fooled by the rest of the cast? Even the great speech about the benefits of sack from “Henry IV, Part II” is included after his dunking into the Thames. In fact, Verdi makes a musical miracle of it by matching the “trillo” (“thrill”) in the lyrics sung by the imbibing knight with a crescendo of trills in the orchestra that warms us all. Think of the first rays of the sun hitting the Rhine Gold for an equally impressive moment in opera.
As does Puccini in the opening minutes of “Manon Lescaut,” Verdi seems to sprinkle melodies around as if from a bottomless reserve. What might have been major arias for lesser composers become mere throw-aways here. The ensembles are the most complex ever written up to then, many sung without any accompaniment, with each voice part totally unintelligible and the whole coming across as a literal torrent of sound. Semi-professional singers I have spoken with claim that rehearsing these numbers has caused more headaches than any other opera selections in their experience.
The most complex of them all is the scene in which Falstaff is singing from the laundry basket, Nannetta and Fenton from behind a screen, and each of the main characters singing solo and ensemble lines as they first search the house for the adulterer and then sneak up on the screen from which the young lovers manage to kiss two quick kisses. This is funny even on a recording without the stage business visible, all the more so in a live performance or video version. (Some have suggested that the famous Toscanini recording on RCA Victor is devoid of humor, but I find it to be quite funny where it should be.)
It is in the last of the six scenes, the Windsor Forest sequence, that Verdi’s most magical musical moments can be found. None of the other composers discussed in the last article come near the supernatural feeling invoked by the Italian master; and I am sure Shakespeare would have preferred this version to all the others.
Tongue firmly in cheek, Verdi decided to end his operatic career with that most scholarly of all musical forms, the fugue. Using the Italian equivalent of “All the world’s a stage” (“Tutto nel mondo e burla”) and composing it in C major, Verdi rings down the curtain not only on the best of the Falstaff dramatizations but on his own operatic career.