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Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi and Shakespeare

Verdi adored Shakespeare. Besides the three operas he took from him—MacbethOtello, and Falstaff—he considered (though briefly) doing a Tempest or Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. He considered for a very long time, and came near to creating, an opera from his favorite play, King Lear.

He had not been to England when he composed Macbeth, but he had acquired, from friends like Andrea Maffei, solid information on the way Macbeth was staged in the country of its origin. For Macbeth, he cut the play down to opera size himself, creating a prose synopsis for his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, to versify. 

Verdi worked himself so deeply into Shakespeare’s mind that in revising Macbeth for a Paris premiere, he took the gem of this performance—Lady Macbeth’s aria “La luce langue”—directly from Shakespeare, in collaboration with his wife:

“Verdi himself actually wrote the text for this aria—not only the detailed prose version he first sent to [his librettist] Piave on December 15, but the verses themselves, to which the librettist made only a few minor changes.”

Illustrations by Gustave Dore from "Gargantua and Pantagruel" by Francois Rabelais

"Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel"  is a pentalogy of novels written in the 16th century by François Rabelais, which tells of the adventures of two giants, Gargantua  and his son Pantagruel

Falstaff - Verdi
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 1982
Direttore d'orchestra: Carlo Maria Giulini
Sir John Falstaff: Renato Bruson
Mrs. Alice Ford: Katia Ricciarelli
Pistola: William Wildermann
Nannetta: Barbara Hendricks
Bardolfo: Francis Egerton
Mrs. Quickly: Lucia Valentini-Terrani
Oste: George MacPherson
Ford: Leo Nucci
Dr. Cajus: John Dobson
Mrs. Meg Page: Brenda Boozer
Fenton: Dalmacio González

Verdi's Falstaff is, as everyone knows, based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. It is, thus, a great opera by a great composer; and it is based on the work of a great dramatist who happened, for once, to write a pretty poor play. Maybe it is not polite to say that anything by Shakespeare is not very good- Anyway, this play was so really secondrate that many Shakespearean scholars doubt that Shakespeare wrote much of it.

Be that as it may, Verdi's librettist, Arrigo Boito, took out some of the unnecessary stuffing, added bits and pieces from better Shakespeare plays, and gave his friend Verdi an excellent concoction, filled with the champagne of high spirits. And Verdi, though in his eightieth year when the opera was produced, wrote a sparkling score. There is none of the long, passionate melodies here of the youthful Traviata and Trovatore, but wit, skill, and high spirits in almost every bar.



Opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi with
libretto by Arrigo Boito based on Shakespeare's
The Merry Wives of Windsor and bits of
Henry IV

Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight
Bardolph, Falstaff’s hanger-on

Pistol, Falstaff’s hanger-on

Ford, a wealthy burgher

Alice Ford, his wife

Nanetta Ford, their daughter

Fenton, Ann's suitor

Dr. Caius, another suitor

Mistress Page, a neighbor of the Fords

Mistress Quickly, servant of Dr. Caius

Time: early 15th century
Place: Windsor

First performance at Milan, February 9, 1893


Sir John Falstaff:

Baritone. Drinking with his friends Pistol and Bardolph , Falstafffinds he has too little money to pay the bill. However, he has a plan: he has written letters to two wealthy ladies whom he believes to be attracted to him—if he can seduce them, he can get his hands on their husbands’ money. The ladies in question, Alice Ford and Meg Page , compare notes and decide to teach him a lesson. Through their friend Mistress Quickly, they arrange a meeting between Falstaff and Alice at her home. Her husband hears of this and, in disguise, encourages Falstaff and accompanies him to the house in order to see if his wife is being unfaithful. His attempts to catch Alice and Falstaff together fail. Alice shows him Falstaff dragging himself out of the water below - he has been hidden in a laundry-basket and tipped into the river. A further meeting is arranged, in Windsor Park at midnight. Falstaff is told the must come dressed as the legendary Black Huntsman who haunts the forest. The ladies, the Fords' daughter and her sweetheart, and some of the other men all join in tormenting Falstaff. When the disguises are eventually removed, he realizes he has been duped, and takes it all in good part. Arias: L'Onore! Ladri! ('Your Honour! Scoundrels!'); Quand'ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk ('When I was a page to the Duke of Norfolk');Mondo ladro. Mondo rubaldo. ('Thieving world. Vile world.'); Tutto nel mondo ё burla ('All in the world’s but folly'ーthis is the astonishing fugue in which everyone joins in the final scene of the opera). Created (1893) by Victor Maurel.

Verdi - Falstaff -Mondo ladro. Mondo rubaldo.


(Bardolf) Tenor. A follower and drinking companion of Falstaff. Created ( 1893 ) by Paolo Pelagalli-Rossetti.


Bass. A follower and drinking companion of Falstaff. Created ( 1893 ) by Vittorio Arimondi.


Baritone. Husband of Alice and father of Nannetta. He plans to marry his daughter to old Dr Caius. He learns of Falstaff's plan to seduce his wife and, disguised, offers to help him (in order to spy on his wife and see her reaction). He accompanies Falstaff to the Ford house and is heard coming in to interrupt the meeting. Falstaff is bundled into a laundry-basket and tipped into the river, and Alice is able to point him out to her husband as the fat knight struggles ashore. Ford joins the ladies in teaching Falstaff a further lesson and is himself tricked into consenting to the marriage of his daughter and Fenton, the young man she loves - couples are brought to him, still in disguise, and he blesses their union, only to find he has 'married' Caius to Bardolph and Nannetta to Fenton. He, like Falstaff, accepts the inevitable. Aria: E sogno? O realta... Due rami enormi crescon...('Am I dreaming? Or is it true... ? I feel two еnormous horns...'). Created (1893) by Antonio Pini-Corsi.

Mandla Mndebele - O sogno o realta [Falstaff - G. Verdi]

Alice Ford:

Soprano. Wife of Ford and mother of Nannetta. She promises to help her daughter, whom Ford wants to marry off to the elderly Dr Caius, while Nannetta wants to marry the man she loves, young Fenton. Falstaff plans to seduce Alice as a way of acquiring some of her husband's money. She enlists the help of Mistress Quickly and Meg Page, and they set about teaching Falstaff a lesson. Ford, told of Falstaff's intentions, is worried his wife might actually be unfaithful. Alice arranges for Falstaff to visit her ‘between two and three’ when her husband is out. Meg pretends to hear Ford approaching and they hide Falstaff behind a screen. Mistress Quickly announces that Ford really is here. Falstaff is hastily bundled into a laundry‐basket, Nannetta and Fenton taking his place. Ford hears the sound of kissing coming from behind the screen, pulls it down and reveals his daughter and her sweetheart. So where is Falstaff? Alice leads him to the window, through which the laundry‐basket has been tipped, and there is the Fat Knight, soaking wet, struggling to climb out of the river below. Alice makes a further arrangement with Falstaff—they will meet in Windsor Park at midnight. Everyone dons masks and costumes and Falstaff is teased and tormented by all present, until he finally understands that it was all a joke and takes it in good part. Aria (with the other ladies): Gaie comari di Windsor! è l'ora! (‘Merry Wives of Windsor! it is the hour!’); Avrò con me del putti (‘I will have with me little elves’). In recent years, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Giulietta Simionato, and Regina Resnik have been famous Alice Fords. Created (1893) by Emma Zilli.

Verdi's Falstaff, Act II, Scene II: Gaie comari di Windsor!

Nannetta Ford:

Soprano. Daughter of Ford and Alice. Her father plans to marry her to old Dr Caius but she is in love with young Fenton. She and Fenton join with her mother in teaching Falstaff—and Ford, for doubting his wife—a lesson. In the final scene in Windsor Park, Nannetta and her friends exchange garments with Fenton and his friends as she cleverly avoids being married to Caius, each of them being disguised. As their union is blessed by her father (under the impression that she has been married to Caius), fairies and goblins dance around the bemused Falstaff. When the truth is revealed, Ford accepts the situation with a good grace. Aria: Sul fil d'un soffio etesio (‘On the breath of winds’); duet (with Fenton): Labbra di foco! (‘Lips that are burning!). Created (1893) by Adelina Stehle.

Barbara Bonney - "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio" (Falstaff)


Tenor. Young man in love with Nannetta, daughter of the Fords (although in the original Shakespeare, he was in love with the Page daughter. Aria: Dal labbro il canto estasia (‘From lover's lips a tender song’); duet (with Nannetta): Labbra di foco! (‘Lips that are burning!’). Created (1893) by Edoardo Garbin.

Anna Skibinsky:"Vien qua...Labbra di foco"(Fenton/Nannetta)

Dr Caius:

Tenor. An elderly gentleman whom Ford has chosen as a husband for his daughter Nannetta. Created ( 1893 ) by Giovanni Paroli.

Falstaff - Dr Caius - Jordi Casanova

Mistress Page:


Mezzo-soprano. One of the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ whom Falstaff proposes to seduce with the intention of getting his hands on their husbands’ money. She and Alice Ford are good friends and compare the letters they have received from the Fat Knight. Together with Mistress Quickly they hatch a plan to teach him a lesson. Her husband does not appear in the opera. Created (1893) by Virginia Guerrini.


Mistress Quickly:


Contralto. One of the Merry Wives of Windsor, friend of Alice Ford and Meg Page. She agrees to help Alice and Meg, both of whom Falstaff is trying to seduce to get at their husbands’ money. She acts as the carrier of notes from the two ladies to Falstaff, arranging a meeting for him with Alice at the Ford home, telling him to be there dalle due alle tre (‘from two to three’) when Ford will not be at home. During that meeting, it is Mistress Quickly who warns Alice that her husband, jealous and suspicious, has returned and is about to enter the room to try and catch her with Falstaff. Aria: Reverenza! (‘Your worship’). Created (1893) by Giuseppina Pasqua.

Verdi: Falstaff - Stephanie Blythe (Mrs. Quickly) Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff)



Scene 1 The time is the fifteenth century; the place is Windsor, not far from London; and the scene is inside the Garter Inn. That fat old rascal, Sir John Falstaff, is being upbraided by the foolish old Dr. Caius. Apparently, the night before, Caius has had a drinking bout with Falstaff and his disreputable hangers-on, Bardolph and Pistol, and Caius's pocket has been picked. He gets exactly nowhere with the three: they are merely contemptuous.

When Caius has left, Falstaff is given а bill by the host of the inn. He cannot pay, and .so he devises a plot to get money. He tells Bardolph and Pistol how two jolly wives of Windsor - Mistress Ford and Mistress Page—have been attracted to шш, Both, he says, control their husbands' purse strings. He means to make love to them and to get money from them. For this purpose he has written each a letter, and Bardolph and Pistol are to constitute themselves the postal departments But, surprisingly, these good-for-nothings refuse: they say they stand on their honor and will have nothing to da with this business. “Honor!” cries Falstaff—and he delivers them a terrific lecture on the meaninglessness of that word. (It is а pretty magnificent lecture, taken largely from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2.) Honor cannot fill an empty stomach or set straight a broken limb, and is nothing but a word that floats away. As for Bardolph and Pistol, they are nothing but thieves; ana he closes the act by chasing them, with a broom, right out of the inn!

Scene 2 In spite of Bardolph and Pistol, Falstaff has had his letters delivered by a page to Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. And in the second scene of this act, we turn from the purely masculine company of the Garter Inn to meet the ladies in Ford's house. There is Meg Page, and there is Alice Ford (those are the two “merry wives’’),there is Alice’s pretty daughter Ann, and there is the gossipy old neighbor Dame Quickly, who happens also to be the servant of Dr. Caius. The two merry wives soon discover that they have received identical letters from Sir John Falstaff, and they are convulsed with glee.

Meantime, those rapscallions, Bardolph and Pistol, have told Ford that the fat knight is planning to seduce his wife. The Ford household is a pretty busy place that morning, for Dr. Caius has also come over to complain of the way he has been treated. And, to make the stage quite full, there is also young Fenton, a suitor for the hand of Ann Ford. What with the women plotting against Falstaff on one side of the stage, the men plotting against him on the other, and everyone talking at the same time, Verdi had a fine chance for chattery nine-part writing. He made splendid use of it. And, by way of contrast, he also wrote some light love music for Ann and Fenton. Fenton's suit is not approved by Ford, who wants Ann to marry Dr. Caius. Therefore, the young folks have only brief words with each other on the sly. No full-blown love duets here-just flirtations. The whole scene, in fact, is light ai d airy as a feather.


Scene 1 The plots against Sir John Falstaff now begin to take shape. Back at the Garter Inn, Bardolph and Fistol, the bypocrites, ask to be taken back into FalstaS's good graces. Soon they usher in Dame Quickly. She tells the knight that the two ladies—Mistress Page and Mistress Ford—are both in love with him. Ford, she says, is always away from home between two and three. Won't Sir John pay a call? And Page - why, he's away from home most of the time, so... Vastly flattered, Falstaff promises to come; and when Dame Quickly leaves, he expresses his self-satisfaction in the monologue Va, vecchio John. "Get along with you, old John," he says in effect; “there’s life in the old boy yet.”

But now Bardolph announces another visitor, one Maestro Fontana, who wishes to meet him, and who brings along a demijohn of wine for breakfast. This Fontana is none other than Ford in disguise. He enlists Falstaff's aid,with the promise of money, in seducing the wife of a certain burgher of Windsor - Mistress Ford, to be exact. Falstaff falls into the trap completely, promising success based on his own attraction for the lady in question. But when he goes оff to array himself properly for the conquest, Ford sings a terrific monologue (Ё sogno? о realta?—"Is it a dream? or is it real?") on the chances he stands of being made a cuckold. He swears a terrible revenge on both Falstaff and his own wife; but the scene ends again in comedy as he and Falstaff, now splendidly attired, bow each other out of the doorway with ludicrous ceremony.

Scene 2 Back in Ford's house things begin to come to a boil. The ladies are together, and Dame Quickly reports her success with Sir John Falstaff. He will come wooing Mistress Ford today, from two to three. Meantime, pretty little Ann tells her mother that Ford wants her to marry old Dr. Caius —a dreadful thought to both of them!

Unfortunately, it is time for Falstaff to come a-wooing. The stage is set for him: Mistress Ford takes up a lute; the others hide behind a screen. The fat old gentleman wastes no time in his ludicrous love-making. Within two minutes he is proposing: he tells Alice how beautiful she is and how handsome he once was, and he does his best to take her into the cushioned circumference of his arms. Alice, of course, resists coquettishly, but they are soon interrupted. Ford is on his way home! And there is a fine how-de-do as the ladies hide His Fatness behind the screen.

Ford breaks in furiously, with a whole retinue of followers. They look everywhere—even in a large laundry basket—but not, fortunately,behind the screen. When the men are off searching other rooms, the fat knight is stuffed into that laundry basket. He is covered with dirty clothes; and when the men return, he occasionally sticks out his head to complain that he's roasting to death. It’s a perfectly mad scene, everyone singing at once, or in pairs, or in quartets. Even the two young lovers— Ann and Fenton—have a chance to exchange some tender words behind the screen. Finally, with the men off again searching in another room, the laundry basket, complete with Falstaff, is heaved out of the window and—splash—into the river outside. Huge laughter and merriment close the broadly farcical scene.


Scene 1 Poor Jack Falstaff! Honest Jack FalstaffI Rogue Jack Falstaffl He has been thoroughly defeated—thrown, in a laundry basket, into the river, whfle Ford and his wife have become quite reconciled. But they are not through yet with the fat knight; otherwise there would have been no Act III. There he sits, before the Garter Inn, commiserating with himself. He has been terribly treated, vilely treated. But he gets a big beaker of hot wine, and then we hear the famous trill in the orchestra to show what it does to him. It starts way down (like the effect of wine), and it grows and grows, till the whole orchestra—like Jack’s whole body—is one big trill and thrill!

Now Dame Quickly comes. With little difficulty she persuades Falstaff that it was not Alice's fault. She still loves him—and he reads her letter, which Dame Quickly has brought It is an assignation to meet at midnight, in disguise, at the royal park. The other plotters have been listening to this exchange; and when Faistaff and Dame Quickly enter the inn, the eavesdroppers occupy the entire stage and develop their various plots. And while they are in a conspiratorial mood, Dt. Caius and Ford plot, by means of disguises, to marry the old physician to young Ann that same night.

Scene 2 And now, last scene of all: midnight m Windsoi Park. There all sorts of things may happen—especially under Herne's Oak. Heme was a legendary huntsman, and the very opening notes of the scene suggest the hunting horn's echoing in ghostly fashion. There the lovers—Fenton and Ann—meet to sing a brief duet. It cannot go on long? for they must don their costumes for the fun, and to carry out their own plot.

Then, cold on the stroke of midnight, enter Sir John, disguised as the hunter Heme. One... two... three... up to twelve be counts the strokes, when bis beloved Alice greets him. Sir Jobn's love-making makes a sharp contrast with young Fenton's; but be too is interrupted. A whole troop of fairies arrives, with Ann, disguised as their Queen, at their head. It is all done to charming, fairylike music, but Sir John hides, frightened to deaths before thе oak. In bis superstitious mind it is death to look on tames. With everyone assembled—the men, too, in their supernatural disguises - the fun begins. They torture poor Sir John—they stick him, prick him, pinch him, roll him, and tumble him, till thе old man can take no more. At length be arises and shakes them off, only to be reviled— and finally forgiven. Never again will be go a-courting the merry wives of Windsor!

But what of the young lovers? Ford, who has plotted to betroth Dr. Caius to his daughter Ann, does so. Only it turns out that the redheaded rascal Bardolph has taken over Ann's disguise as the Queen of the Fames, and Caius finds himself with a pretty bride indeed! At the same time Ford has blessed another couple in masks, and these turn out to be Ann herself and her true-love Fenton.

In the magic of the night and the wooded scene everyone is reconciled. Falstaff proposes a grand finale, and Verdi ends his long and glorious operatic career with a magnificent fugue in nine parts.

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