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Falstaff in a nutshell

Everything you need to know about Verdi’s rollicking Shakespearean comedy — right here!

What is the story?

Falstaff is based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, with scenes from the Henry IV plays too.

Caddish knight Sir John Falstaff has fallen on hard times and schemes to get his hands on some cash by seducing two wealthy wives of Windsor: Alice Ford and Meg Page. However, when the ladies find he has sent them both an identical love letter, they suss out what’s going on and plan to teach Falstaff a lesson…

After plots and counterplots, confusion, disguises, deception, and a dunking in the River Thames by way of a laundry basket, our hero finally admits he’s beaten!

Read full synopsis

Kate Royal as Alice Ford and Henry Waddington as Falstaff © Richard H Smith

Who are the key characters?

Falstaff — a knight (bass-baritone)
Alice Ford — wealthy wife of Windsor (soprano)
Ford — her husband (baritone)
Meg Page — wealthy wife of Windsor (mezzo-soprano)
Mistress Quickly (mezzo-soprano)
Nannetta — Alice’s daughter, in love with Fenton (soprano)
Fenton — Alice’s suitor (tenor)
Dr Caius — older, intended for Nannetta (tenor)

A refurbished caravan in preparation for Falstaff © James Gossop

What is the music like?

Falstaff’s score is bursting with energy! Unlike Verdi’s earlier operas, there are no neat divisions into arias, the music is continuous, and there is no overture — we go straight into the action.

There is a lot of storytelling and humour in the orchestra — think the piccolo for quick wit versus the lumbering depths of the lower instruments! In Falstaff’s first rendezvous with Alice, he serenades her in an artificially high register accompanied by a guitar (which also evokes the Shakespearean lute). But as the scene goes on, the music changes showing us his wicked intensions, and two mocking bassoons enter…

The opera’s best-known moment is the finale “Tutto nel mondo è burla” (or in our English translation “Life is a burst of laughter”), which takes the musical form of a fugue. A fugue begins with a single voice introducing the tune in the tonic or ‘home’ key, then a second voice answers a fifth above. A third and fourth voice then enter in sequence, and so on. In this way, the finale cleverly weaves together all 10 voices of the principal characters, which could suggest that after all the drama, they are now reconciled. Here it below…

What is this production like?

Falstaff is part of our Green Season of three sustainable operas, which all share one skeleton set ingeniously designed by Leslie Travers.

This staging, by director Olivia Fuchs, has a 1980s feel. Falstaff is now living in squalor in a caravan with some of the trappings of his opulent former life. Meanwhile, we first meet the ladies at their tennis club — a net stretches across the stage, with an umpire’s chair and picket fence — perfect for intrigues and hiding…

In the spirit of re-purposing, you may recognise some set pieces from other Opera North productions — like the grand, panelled windows at the Ford’s from The Marriage of Figaro, and the blue sky from Orpheus. ‘New’ elements are all locally sourced — look out for the tree in Act III, constructed entirely from antlers, shed by the deer at nearby Harewood Estate!

See some of Gabrielle Dalton’s costume designs below…

Who was the composer?

Falstaff was written by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), the daddy of Italian opera. Verdi wrote 28 operas, the most popular including La traviata, Rigoletto and Aida.

Falstaff is his final opera (composed as he approached the age of 80!) but only his second comedy — in 1887, he commented “after having relentlessly massacred so many heroes and heroines, I have at last the right to laugh a little”!

However, Verdi didn’t want his Falstaff to be merely an Italian ‘opera buffa’ caricature – so he and librettist Arrigo Boito wove in scenes of the more ambiguous Falstaff from the Henry IV plays into The Merry Wives of Windsor to give the character more depth.

Librettist Arrigo Boito and composer Giuseppe Verdi in 1892

Did you know?

— Verdi was a huge Shakespeare fan. He didn’t speak English, but read and re-read the plays in Italian translation, and kept them by his bedside. He completed three operatic adaptations of Shakespeare plays — Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, all deemed masterpiece — but also during his career considered The Tempest and Hamlet, and came very near to creating an opera of his favourite, King Lear.

Falstaff’s premiere in 1893 at La Scala, Milan was quite an event, with a celebrity audience of aristocrats, officials, artists, and composers – including soon-to-be-famous Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria rusticana) and Giacomo Puccini (Tosca, La bohème and more). When Verdi returned to his hotel, nearly 4,000 fans were waiting outside, and he, along with librettist Arrigo Boito, had to greet the excited crowd from the balcony!

Richard Burkhard as Ford and Henry Waddington as Falstaff in Falstaff © Richard H Smith

Falstaff lasts approx. 2 hours 20 minutes and is sung in English translation with English titles.

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