Falstaff learning pack

An opera in three acts composed by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito (based on the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor by Shakespeare)

Doctor Caius – A French physician (Tenor)

Sir John Falstaff – A fat and vain knight (Baritone)

Bardolph – One of Falstaff’s assistants (Tenor)

Pistol – Another of Falstaff’s assistants (Bass)

Mrs Meg Page – A lady of Windsor (Mezzo-soprano)

Mrs Alice Ford – Another lady of Windsor and wife of Ford (Soprano)

Mistress Quickly – A friend of Meg and Alice (Mezzo-soprano)

Nannetta – Ford’s daughter (Soprano)

Fenton – A young man in love with Nannetta (Tenor)

Ford – A wealthy merchant (Baritone)


Act One – Scene One: At the Garter Inn

Sir John Falstaff is interrupted by Doctor Caius, who accuses the Fat Knight of having broken into his house and of beating his servants. Falstaff calmly admits the accusation. Caius also claims that Falstaff’s followers, Bardolph and Pistol, plied him with drink and picked his pockets: if he ever gets drunk again it will be in honest company. As the Doctor is driven out with a pious ‘Amen’, Falstaff advises his men to steal more stylishly.

The landlord brings Falstaff the bill: “Six chickens, 30 jugs of sherry, two pheasants and one anchovy”. There is not enough money in Falstaff’s purse and Bardolph and Pistol are costing him ten guineas a week. Falstaff fears that he is wasting away: his paunch is his kingdom – it must be preserved.

Now to business: Falstaff has a plan to fill their empty purse. In Windsor live two beautiful women, Alice Ford and Meg Page; Falstaff hopes to win their hearts, and their rich husbands’ money. Alice, he believes, has already smiled on his seductive figure. He has written identical love-letters to both ladies, and hands them to Bardolph and Pistol to deliver. To his surprise, they refuse ­– on the grounds that such a commission is dishonest.

Falstaff rounds on them; what do they know of honour? Can honour fill the belly? No. He evicts Bardolph and Pistol from the room.

Act One – Scene Two: The garden of Ford’s house

Alice Ford and Meg Page are met by Mistress Quickly and Alice’s daughter, Nannetta. Alice and Meg have received Falstaff’s love letters, which they compare. With mounting indignation, they resolve that Falstaff must be taught a lesson.

Bardolph, Pistol and Caius tell Mr Ford that Falstaff has designs on his wife. A young man, Fenton, slips away from the group to flirt with Nannetta.

The women resume their plotting, and decide to send Mistress Quickly to visit Falstaff with an invitation from Alice. Nannetta and Fenton snatch another few moments together before the men return to make their own plans for revenge. Ford will present himself to Falstaff under an assumed name and trap him.

Act Two – Scene One: At the Garter Inn

Falstaff is rejoined by Bardolph and Pistol – suitably penitent. Mistress Quickly arrives, reporting that Alice Ford is pining for Falstaff’s attention, and that her jealous husband is always absent between two and three o’clock. Meg Page, she says, is equally keen. Quickly leaves and Falstaff congratulates himself on his impending conquests.

Ford, disguised as Mr Brook, arrives next. Mr Brook has spent time and money wooing Alice, but has failed to seduce her. If Falstaff could overcome Alice’s resistance, in exchange for money, the way would be open for Mr Brook. Eagerly accepting the money, Falstaff announces that nothing could be simpler – in half an hour Alice will be in his arms. Ford is thunderstruck as Falstaff explains that her ‘stupid’ husband will be absent between two and three o’clock.

As Falstaff goes off to prepare for his amorous encounter, Ford rages jealously, and resolves to catch Falstaff and Alice together.

Act Two – Scene Two: A room in Ford’s house

Mistress Quickly reports back to Alice and Meg about her meeting with Falstaff. Meanwhile Nannetta is despondent – her father wants her to marry Caius. The women are appalled at the idea and put the finishing touches to their plan.

Alice is left alone, Falstaff enters and extravagantly declares his passion. The scene is shattered by the news that Meg Page is outside in a state of great agitation; Falstaff is hastily concealed behind a screen. Meg’s feigned agitation is interrupted by the announcement that Ford really is on his way in to the house.

Ford orders his men to search the house; he notices a laundry-basket, but finds that it contains only dirty washing. As Ford rushes off to search elsewhere, Falstaff is bundled into the basket. In the confusion, Nannetta and Fenton enter, searching for a place to be together. They hide. Ford’s men resume their frantic pursuit; a momentary silence is interrupted by the sound of a kiss from behind the screen. Believing he has caught Alice and Falstaff in flagrante, Ford organizes his troops in hushed tones. At a count of three the screen is torn down. Nannetta and Fenton are discovered – Ford is furious. Alice calls for servants to carry the laundry-basket to the window; Ford joins in the laughter as its contents are emptied into the Thames.

Act Three – Scene One: Outside the Garter Inn, on the banks of the Thames

Falstaff reflects gloomily on his day – only his paunch saved him from drowning. Wine restores his spirits, but his recovered mood is spoiled by the arrival of Mistress Quickly, who brings a new proposition: Alice will meet Falstaff in the Royal Park at midnight. He must come disguised as Herne the Black Hunter.

Meanwhile Alice, who has been listening, outlines the masquerade they will stage to frighten Falstaff: Nannetta will be disguised as the Queen of the Fairies, Meg as a wood nymph, Quickly as a witch, with a troop of children as elves and imps. Ford tells Caius that he is to disguise himself as a monk, and that Ford will marry him to Nannetta. Mistress Quickly, however, has overheard his plan.

Act Three – Scene Two: At Herne’s Oak, in Windsor Great Park

Fenton meets Nannetta in her disguise as Queen of the Fairies. They are interrupted by Alice, who gives the puzzled Fenton a monk’s habit to wear.

Falstaff arrives and midnight chimes. Alice arrives, and Falstaff welcomes the news that Meg’s arrival is imminent. Meg’s voice, offstage, warns that the fairies are coming. Falstaff is terrified as the Queen of the Fairies summons her spirits and sings an incantation.

More masked revellers, including Bardolph and Pistol torment Falstaff – demanding that he repent. Falstaff recognizes Bardolph, and realizes that he has been duped. Falstaff is amazed to meet Mr Brook – and his true identity is revealed by Alice. Mistress Quickly unmasks to join the merry wives in teasing Falstaff. Falstaff acknowledges that he has been duped.

Ford’s plan now goes ahead as a veiled couple is led forward to be married. Alice presents a second couple for a double wedding. Caius discovers Bardolph is his bride, while the second couple turn out to be Fenton and Nannetta. Ford magnanimously blesses the young couple and admits defeat. Falstaff proposes a chorus to end the proceedings, after which, Ford adds, they will all join Falstaff for supper.

Background to the opera

Falstaff was written in 1890 and first performed in 1893 at La Scala in Milan. It is one of only two comic operas Verdi wrote, (the first, written at the start of his career in the 1830s, had been considered something of a failure). After years of immersing himself in themes of destiny, war, familial loyalty and dark tragedy, he decided that through his love of Shakespeare, he would use the story of The Merry Wives of Windsor as well as elements of Henry IV as the basis of what would become his last opera. Falstaff is also one of Verdi’s shortest operas, and despite this it has many diverse musical themes giving the impression of a very complicated and busy score. Verdi hated the Wagnerian style of using leitmotifs, and this led to a lack of familiar melodic lines tying the opera together. Instead, Verdi focused on the orchestration, using the orchestra to create images of the situations going on onstage, and not necessarily focusing on the characters. It could be argued that this enhances the comic value of the characters, by keeping them shallow and avoiding long emotional arias. The first production was a great success, and it has gone on to become one of Verdi’s most important operas, having had four different productions staged just at Glyndebourne since the 1950s.

Giuseppi Verdi – Biography

(born Province of Parma, 10 October 1813; died Milan 27 January 1901)

Verdi was born in northern Italy and, along with Wagner, became one of the most influential composers of the 19th century as well as being considered by many as one of the most important composers of opera of all time.

He produced his first opera in 1839, and initially struggled to become recognised as a musician, but quickly shot to fame as a composer working for the La Scala opera house in Milan. He faced a terrible tragedy when his son, daughter and wife all died in 1840. However despite the depression he suffered afterwards, he carried on composing, producing many more works.

After the 1848 revolutions Verdi composed Rigoletto and La traviata, two of his major successes. These works showed him to be a master of dramatic composition and established him securely. Verdi’s great admiration of Shakespeare is well known and three of his operas are based on the playwright’s plays (Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff – based on The Merry Wives of Windsor).

In 1874, he retired from composing, turning to politics (he was elected to the Italian senate) and farming.

After the 1870s, Verdi become less popular and unfashionable in some European centres. Meanwhile Wagner was becoming more and more popular. It was only after his death in 1901 that Verdi’s popularity would rise again.

Verdi was greatly honoured during his lifetime, and was given a state funeral on his death. His works are still performed throughout the world, and today he is known as one of the greatest of the operatic composers.