The Met Streams Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be seen at

Friday, July 24

Verdi’s Falstaff  ~ 2Hrs 8Mins

Starring Mirella Freni, Barbara Bonney, Marilyn Horne, Bruno Pola, Susan Graham, and Paul Plishka, conducted by James Levine. From October 10, 1992.

We continue with this week’s third in a row’ operas based on Shakespeare’ theme, with a delightful, fun-filled Falstaff. Verdi finished his sublime final opera when he was almost 80 years old, capping an amazing and prolific career with a bawdy adaptation of scenes from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV. His classic operatic farce charts the aging knight’s gold-digging efforts to seduce two married women – leading to belly-flopping failures on both counts. The lively score, meanwhile, is a complete tour de force, demonstrating Verdi’s panache, as well as his piercing insight into human nature. As I mentioned the first time around, Verdi himself said of the project, “After having relentlessly massacred so many heroes and heroines, I have at last the right to laugh a little.” And, in fact, his ‘Fat Knight’ is a considerably more comical fellow than Shakespeare’s original. The wonderfully amusing plot involves Falstaff’s continuously thwarted, often farcical attempts to seduce multiple married women in order to get his hands on their husbands’ fortunes. 

Both the cheerfulness and the humanity of Shakespeare’s treatment of early 15th century England are deftly expressed here in terms of another theatrical tradition – that of Italian comic opera – trimmed, distilled, and enlivened to a remarkable degree. Verdi wrote that his talented librettist, Arrigo Boito (a gifted opera composer, himself), had “resolved all the buts and written me a lyric comedy unlike any other.” There is, of course, much common ground that the play and opera buffa share: innocent young lovers plotting together against parental authority, a paunchy and self-deluding older man, and his sharp-witted female nemeses. Alice Ford, in particular, whom Verdi said “stirs the porridge,” evokes Mozart’s Susanna, who is at the center of all the intrigues in Le nozze di Figaro that we saw just last week, and so it is particularly fitting that Mirella Freni, one of the great Susannas of her time (as well as a famous Nannetta) should here graduate to a more mature, but equally inventive counterpart. 

All the humor of Boito’s libretto (mostly taken directly from Shakespeare’s words) is happily brought to life by a cast of great singing actors in Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent production with its rich interiors and sumptuous Tudor costumes. Paul Plishka is the lecherous, aging, fat knight Falstaff. Marilyn Horne’s delicious Dame Quickly always gets the best of him, with able help from Mirella Freni’s sly Alice Ford and Susan Graham’s delightful Meg Page. A suitably adorable Barbara Bonney and an ardent Frank Lopardo are the young lovers who playfully elude the older generation. James Levine’s deft conducting brings out all of the nuances in Verdi’s sprightly score. 

The three matrons (actually the merry wives of Windsor!) show themselves to be more than able to outwit Falstaff – as well as several other men in Windsor – at every step in the plot, and in addition we are treated to the charming love story of Nannetta and Fenton. As the opera begins, we get a sense for Falstaff’s larcenous leanings. He is ensconced in his somewhat seedy rooms at the Garter Inn where he is drinking with his rather inept – and definitely less than loyal – servants Bardolfo and Pistola (you can tell by their names that they will add a great deal to the comedy!) Falstaff finally chases them out with a broom saying “L’Onore! Ladri!” (Honor! You rogues…) ‘honor’ is nothing more than a word.

Among other humorous tidbits in this scene, we learn of Falstaff’s plot to simultaneously woo Mistresses Ford and Page by sending each of them the very same love letter (why bother to compose two?) The aforementioned ladies, however, happen to be best friends and soon discover they have received duplicate letters. Along with Mistress Quickly and the young Nannetta they resolve to teach the fat knight a lesson. Mistress Quickly is dispatched to tell Falstaff that both Alice and Meg are madly in love with him, and in her marvelously nuanced aria “Reverenza!” (Your Grace!) invite him to a tryst. 

Matters soon become greatly complicated, however, by the fact that the very jealous Ford has not been let in on his wife’s plot to shame Falstaff, and thinking she may actually be cheating on him he is seeking his own revenge – but against her, “E’ sogno o realtà?” (Is it a dream or reality?).

To delight in the antics surrounding Falstaff’s first tryst with Mistress Ford, which actually results in an unintended dunking in the river Thames when the fat knight is forced to hide from the furious Ford in a very large laundry basket, which is then hastily dumped by the ladies out of a window and into the river. After licking his wounds, but not yet ready to give up, Falstaff is once again tricked into agreeing to a rendezvous with Alice – this time at midnight in the “haunted” Windsor Great Park. He has a particularly painful encounter with the Queen of the Fairies (Nannetta in disguise) and her followers before we hear Nannetta and Fenton’s beautiful arias “Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola” (From the lips the song in ecstasy flies) and “Sul fil d’ un soffio etesio” (On the breath of a summer breeze). The ladies then perform a cleverly disguised marriage ceremony for Fenton and Nannetta, and in the happiest of happy endings all discover that “Everything in the world is a jest … but he laughs well who laughs the final laugh” – tune in to the Met tonight!

Picture Credits

1. Mirella Freni as Alice and Paul Plishka in the title role of Verdi’s “Falstaff” at the Met, 1992. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.

2. Marilyn Horne as Alice and Paul Plishka in the title role of Verdi’s “Falstaff” at the Met, 1992. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.

3. Barbara Bonney as Nannetta and Frank Lopardo as Fenton in Verdi’s “Falstaff” at the Met, 1992. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.

4. Mirella Freni as Alice and Paul Plishka in the title role of Verdi’s “Falstaff” at the Met, 1992. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.

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