Opera in three acts. Running Time 1 hour 55 minutes.
Now I’ve really done it and broken my ground rules. Unlike a lot of people, including Sir Denis Forman, I really like extremely late Verdi. Although I find his review of Otello to be pretty spot on (and positive, I really don’t think I could add anything to it to be perfectly honest), I feel that he is a bit harsh towards Verdi’s one famous foray into comic opera. It isn’t perfect, personally I do think Otello is the better of the two operas (I actually consider it to be compositionally the most perfect tragic operatic creation ever), but Falstaff is in its own way rather special and this is one instance where my views diverge from Forman’s rather sharply so I figured that (one time) I would seek to “correct” him. Also like the previous post, I may delete this at some point since it really doesn’t flow with the stated objectives of my blog.
SETTING: Windsor, England, around 1400-1410. Alice Ford and Meg Page discover that Sir John Falstaff has been sending them both identical love letters, so they get even with him!
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (30 minutes)
Scene 1: The Garter Inn.
0: The opening scene * bounces around with multiple mini melodies and other musical ideas (including a couple of crescendos and patches of a cappella). The opening theme (before Dr. Caius’ first utterance regarding having his house burgled by Falstaff’s drunken henchmen) gets repeated a lot, but it never settles on any particularly musical idea. Although Otello has the “kiss motif” this is probably the only Verdi opera that actively uses something remotely resembling a leitmotif system (there is a vocal motif for Bardolfo and Pistola if you can catch it).
8, 11: A melody pops up in the high strings (then taken up by the woodwinds) which will form the base of Falstaff’s honour monologue *. There is also a slight reference to the closing fugue and some falsetto as our hero (?) mimics the way he expects Alice and Meg to greet his sexy letters. The henchmen refuse to deliver the letters prompting Falstaff to tell them that honour is just a meaningless word ** and that unless he can get one of the two women to give him some of their husband’s money he can’t afford their services anymore. In the last two minutes the theme which will end the scene starts up in the higher strings (as usual).
Scene 2: The garden of Ford’s house.
15: The scene ** starts off with a scampering flute and then the ladies gather round for letter reading time, the letters are identical and they resolve to have revenge on Falstaff.
19: Two quartets at once **, one for the men the other for the women, all thinking totally different things and yet plotting the same: vengeance on Falstaff. Bardolfo and Pistola have told on Falstaff to Master Ford (Alice’s husband), and later (after the second outing for the two young people) he plots to meet Falstaff in disguise and mess with him. Mistress Quickly will be sent by the women to give him Alice’s acceptance.
22, 25: The first of two outings in this scene of the lovers’ music (Nannetta-Fenton) **. After all the breakneck speed of the previous seven minutes it comes off as a lovely lyrical respite. After a return of the women for more breakneck conversation, we get another patch of lovers’ music, each time ending with Nannetta’s climaxing sustained high A. Very sweet.
28: Now something really special ***, two quartets again, but with Fenton on a high tenor line supported by the French horn above everyone else, captivating. The women do their “Up Sister Suffragettes!” and the act ends on one of the most shockingly traditional battery chord sequences in history (when one recalls that this is 1893!). Notice in this entire scene the way Fenton is portrayed. He is connected to both quartets, but never properly belongs to either. He shares gender with one and his love (Nannetta) with another, but rarely does he actually sing with the men and he never does with the women, although he seems to be overhearing what they are plotting.
ACT 2 (42 minutes)
Scene 1: Same as Act 1 Scene 1.
6: Although not exactly ornery, Mistress Quickly’s bellowing contralto salutation to Falstaff (repeated again and again and obviously intended to be funny) is probably the worst musical element in the opera and it dominates the first few minutes of the act and a bit more of the opera later on. Falstaff greets the news of his scheduled rendezvous with Alice to a bellowing march tune *.
10: The Falstaff/Ford (disguised as a ‘Signore Fontana’) duet **, although it never has a solid tune, it is a very interesting piece. ‘Fontana’ explains that he is a secret admirer of Alice and wants Falstaff to seduce her for him so she will lose her scruples and submit to him, offering him money in compensation. Sir John foolishly reveals his plans to visit Alice at 2 pm that afternoon for a rendezvous.
17: Ford’s jealousy aria * as he waits for Falstaff to dress for his rendezvous with Alice. It’s a little hard to make out if he really is serious or not because he himself seems to think this is all just a bad dream, a nice brassy climax brings on Falstaff’s return and the scene ends with another of those battery chord sequences. Effective.
Scene 2: Ford’s House.
27: This scene starts off with more breakneck speeding for the ladies as they prepare for Alice’s rendezvous with Falstaff. Quickly relays her messaging via more of her bellowing in an arioso that is technically dead centre in the opera and the first moment of slowdown other than Nannetta/Fenton music in the entire opera. It is all really fast until Alice’s semi-set piece declaring the start of the farce * to a flying orchestra.
28: The duet * Alice/Falstaff, starts with a serenade accompanied by a stringed period instrument (I think it is a lute).
35, 38: The act finale ** is bustlingly fasting with the orchestra and signers speed racing at rollercoaster speed. The two moments when Verdi puts on the breaks are for Nannetta and Fenton with more of their lovers’ music **, the first while Falstaff is being placed in the laundry and the second when the other men think Falstaff and Alice are behind a screen. After it is revealed that the lovers are Fenton and Nannetta, however, the rest of the scene races towards the inevitable laundry shoot sequence and the dumping of Falstaff into the Thames with yet another traditional battery chord ending.
ACT 3: (43 minutes)
1: The prelude (less than a minute) climaxes almost militantly. Falstaff lays about * deciding he needs to mix the water of the Thames with wine (or is it visa-versa?). Mistress Quickly bombards him with her ornery greeting and an invite for another rendezvous with Alice at midnight at Herne’s Oak.
8: The final plotting session ** (now Master Ford is in on it with the women and Fenton) almost mysterious like a walk at midnight at first, it becomes lighter as it develops into almost a minuet.
Scene 2: Before the Herne’s Oak.
15: Verdi accomplishes here in seconds what would have taken Wagner minutes to do (depict a starry night) and then he attaches it to what is possibly one of the most lilting tenor arias ever *** for Fenton. It climaxes with a mini-duet with Nannetta which is interrupted by Mistress Quickly (who else) who tells them to get into costume.
20: Falstaff’s count down to midnight *. Not quite the ball-drop on New Years Eve (and it takes a bit before the “faeries” come out to do their stuff). Alice arrives for the rendezvous and then Meg pops in to tell them that the “faeries” are coming!
23: The arrival of the Faerie Queen *** (it is really Nannetta), has a very lovely coloratura bit and feminine choral accompaniment, gentle and in total contrast to what comes next.
29: The torture scene *, although it has some good musical elements (particularly from the women: an almost religious sounding petition of repentance, and the choral bits are effective), the torment going on on stage falls into the same category as the reason I dislike Don Pasquale. Falstaff figures out that it is all a rouse when Bardolfo’s nose ends up tearing his mask. Mistress Quickly brings down everything with her naying antics, which is made up for by the lovely scene in which Nannetta is revealed to have married Fenton and Dr. Caius unwittingly entered a (then) illegal relationship with Bardolfo because of a wardrobe trade off. Ford resigns himself that his daughter has the man she wants.
39: The final fugue ***, a masterpiece to end a masterpiece. Life is one big joke after all!
So what we have here are bits of great and bits of admittedly ornery. The great, however, does far out weigh the ornery in an 80/20 ratio. The first act is almost perfect, constructed from two almost perfect halves of 15 minutes each. The second scene is better (partially because more happens and we get the first dish of the Nannetta-Fenton music), but the first is perfectly fine. The first scene of the second act starts off ornery with Mistress Quickly’s attempt at humour which come off more like the noises made by an angry donkey. Otherwise, even this first scene is perfectly fine. The second scene is much the same, (ornery Quickly doing her stuff) although much, much better with the plus of more from N&F. At times the second scenes of both the first two acts can be a bit of a rollercoaster ride, but overall the scene is very good and the lute during Falstaff’s serenade of Alice is a good bit of effective period scenery. The act ends (as do most of the scenes in general) with rather traditional sounding battery chords (ba-ba-ba-ba-TAH-taa!) which I think only Verdi could have possibly gotten away with by 1893 because the feature was around twenty to thirty years behind the times even then. Although the third act does start of with more of Quickly’s ornery humour, the rest of the act, up to the torture sequence and then afterwards, is actually rather amazing. The two scenes have no obvious musical break (no battery chord finish) although the second scene obviously begins with the striking horn solo. I marked down the torture scene more for what is going on on stage than for the music, it actually is musically okay, although like much of the time when we are among the merry wives a lot does get garbled by Verdi’s perchance here to take everything at high speed. This last feature is obviously the work’s unique tinta, if Verdi was ever going to write a new comic opera it would have to be at a mad cap breakneck speed and for the most part this is the case (the exceptions obviously being Nannetta and Fenton and a few other instances like Quickly’s arioso in act 2 scene 2 when the music does take a breather). Overall I don’t dislike Mistress Quickly, her other music is very nice contralto stuff, but that tune Verdi gave her (obviously for comic effect) just sounds dreadful to those of us listening and not watching the opera (admittedly, operas are meant to be see and not just heard). The romantic plot would be a bit confusing if not for the explanation that Ford objects because he wants his daughter to marry a wealthy man, but this is explained alright. There is also the fact that Master Page is totally missing and Meg gets almost nothing to do, the fact that also got a letter from Falstaff totally goes under the radar after the first act and she remains a secondary player throughout the opera, so we don’t get very much of the Merry Wives. Otherwise my only bugaboo would be the torture scene, although here I can’t blame Verdi and Boito so much as Shakespeare and good luck to me on trying to argue my way out of that one. I just it a bit too cruel, and so here I do agree with Forman. However, that said I find Falstaff to be a solid alpha, but no plus.