Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor at the Opera

Par Gilles Couderc
Publication en ligne le 11 mai 2015


Among the dozen settings of Shakespeare’s domestic comedy to music, few have stood the test of time. Only three have remained on the stage and enjoy various degrees of popularity: Otto Nicolai’s Lustigen Weiber von Windsor (1849), a fantasy comic‑opera in three acts on a libretto by Herman Salomon Rosenthal, Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff (1893) on a libretto by Arrigo Boito based on the Bard’s comedy and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s SirJohn in Love (1930) on a libretto of his own after Shakespeare’s play. As the study of emblematic scenes of the play set to music indicates, –the basket scene and the forest episode, for example –, each opera apprehends Shakespeare at different times and for different purposes. Nicolai’s singspiel, whoselibretto sticks fairly close to the original, via the A. W. Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck translations, belongs to the Romantic period of Mendelssohn, Weber and Lortzing, vindicates women. Boito’s libretto for Verdi’s opera, which drastically condenses the play in six scenes and incorporates material from Henry IV, derives from Boito’s desire to give the fat knight the more subtle substance of the historical play as a way to claim the Bard as part of Italy’s European culture. Vaughan Williams’s Sir John springs from his experience as musical director to Frank Benson’s 1913 Shakespeare’s company at Stratford which included the Merry Wives and liberally interpolates Elizabethan lyrics and English folksong when needed to emphasize his opera’s love interest and thus paint a « Mermaid Tavern » picture of England’s mythical Golden age, all contributing to the Shakespeare myth.


Texte intégral

1Shakespeare’s domestic comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only one among the Bard’s comedies that has provided so many settings by librettists for opera composers, thus securing its place in the Shakespearian canon1. The Fat Knight’s career at the opera started in France with L.‑A. Papavoine’s Le vieux coquet, ou Les deux amies (Paris, 1761) andF.‑A. Philidor’s Herne le Chasseur, a two‑act opéra bouffon (Paris, 1773)2. The Lustigen Weiber von Windsor by Peter Ritter (1763‑1846) and Ditter von Dittersdorf (1739‑1799), two singspiel on the same libretto by Georg Christian Romer, respectively of 1794 and 1796, are now but names in music dictionaries while Antonio Salieri’s two‑act opera‑buffa Falstaff, ossia le Tre burle (Vienna, 1799) based on an Italian libretto by Carlo Prospero Defranceschi can boast a few revivals and four CD recordings.Michael Balfe’s 1838 Falstaff, an opera‑buffa created for the Italian opera audiences of London’s Her Majesty’sTheatre based on a libretto by Manfredo Maggioni has recently been rescued from oblivion3. Only three Merry Wives operas, to which this paper is devoted, have stood the test of time and fashion and remained on the stage until today, with various degrees of popularity. Otto Nicolai’s Lustigen Weiber von Windsor (1849), a « fantasy comic opera » in three acts with a libretto by Herman Salomon Rosenthal is still regularly performed in German opera houses4. Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff (1893) with a libretto by Arrigo Boito has achieved worldwide fame and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s SirJohn in Love (1929), on a libretto of his own after Shakespeare’s play, enjoys a modest fame in English‑speaking countries after a long‑awaited revival5.

2The play’s popularity as an opera subject can be ascribed to its familiar comic theme, the revenge of women on men, a staple of European literature and drama, involving disguise and a happy ending, and to its protagonist, akin to the stock‑character figure of the Miles Gloriosus and the Capitano‑cum‑Pantalone of Commedia dell’arte. Opera as a genre was early associated with Carnival and became part of the festivities at that time of the year, hence the suitability of the play as a subject for opera. Moreover, as Céline Frigau points out6, the play’s blending of comedy and tragedy, – the merry wives’ playing with the fire of Ford’s Othello‑like jealousy and foiling his attempts to catch them red‑handed –, and its Bakhtinian reversal of values, epitomised by the carnivalesque forest scene, establish its kinship with opera buffa, the only opera genre that might accommodate the play’s grotesque.

3Writing an opera libretto always involves the handling of Procrustean shears. The source‑text must be adapted to the many various demands of opera, the characteristics of its well‑defined genres as well as to musical time, with a flow of its own. That is particularly true of Shakespeare’s rambunctiously ramshackle play. The librettists of our Merry Wives operas had to streamline it as it presents sundry repetitive episodes, like the Ford‑Falstaff scenes at the Garter Inn, and many loose ends, so as to give it suitable musical coherence while keeping the most emblematic scenes of the play, the bucket‑basket scene and the forest scene, and thus meeting the expectations of the audience. Each of the operas was created at a different time, in a precise historical and cultural context and each opera apprehends Shakespeare in a different manner and for different purposes. As they are completely different in make‑up and dramatic conception, each provides, at a particular period of history, a different picture of Falstaff and of Shakespeare.

I. Nicolai’s Lustigen Weiber von Windsor : Men beware women!

4Otto Nicolai (1810‑1849), the German conductor and composer, is mostly remembered today as the founder of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, or as the composer who refused to set the Nabucco libretto which became Verdi’s first major success in 1842 and for his Lustigen Weiber, first performed in Berlinin March 1849 to great popular acclaim. The opera was the first success of his librettist, Salomon Herman Mosenthal (1821‑1877) whose career as dramatist and librettist later earned him the nickname of « the German Scribe », in reference to the prolific French dramatist and librettist of the Romantic era, Eugène Scribe (1791‑1861). His job here was to turn the Schlegel‑Tieck translation of Shakespeare’s prose or verse into opera verse from which all sexual improprieties have been carefully removed7, sometimes borrowing the Bard’s most memorable lines, sometimes elaborating from suggestions in the original text8, according to the musical form contemplated by Nicolai, who himself devised the scenario of the opera in seven scenes. The opera is a singspiel, the equivalent and descendant of the French opéra‑comique and the Italian opera‑buffa9, where spoken dialogues alternate with musical numbers, arias, ensembles and choruses in German. A popular genre best illustrated by Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio (1782) and his Magic Flute (1791), singspiel was adopted by German composers of the Romantic era in their dream of composing a truly genuine German opera in their rebellion against Italian or French models, like Weber in Der Freischütz (1821). It was later developed as speiloper by Nicolai’s contemporaries Albert Lortzing (1810‑1851) and Heinrich Marschner (1795‑1861) as an alternative to durchkomponiert opera, like Wagner’s Flying Dutchman.

5The choice of a Shakespearian subject may also have had nationalist overtones. Since the late eighteenth century Shakespeare had been annexed by Wieland, Lessing, Herder and Goethe in the attempt to elaborate a new German culture and drama and foil the overwhelming French influence on the arts: the objective of one of his most famous translator‑adapters, Ludwig Tieck, was to make the Bard the founding‑stone of a German national theatre. When the opera was composed, between 1845 and 1848, the promotion of Shakespeare by literary Germany had resulted in an avalanche of translations and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays from 1820 onwards10, and including among which the so‑called « Schlegel‑Tieck » edition (1825‑1833), which fed a Shakespearomanie denounced both by the older Goethe himself in 1815 in his essay Shakespeare und kein Ende! and the young dramatist Christian Dietrich Grabbe in 182711. Tieck settled in Berlin in 1842 and Felix Mendelssohn, the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn (1729‑1786), one of the promoters of Shakespeare in Germany, composed his incidental music for Tieck’s translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, first performed in Berlin in 1843. The Bard had by then become a household name among educated Germans who were all the more familiar with the Merry Wives and Falstaff in the clothes‑basket or at Herne’s Oak, as it was the only comedy illustrated by Moritz Retzsch (1779‑1857) in his Shakespeare Galleries, a series of eighty outline engravings based on the Bard’s plays, released between 1828 and 184612. After the humiliating Napoleonic war years, King Friedrich‑Wilhelm III of Prussia (1770‑1840) aimed to make Berlin an important intellectual centre, and his capital saw such significant musical events as the first performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz in 1821, the re‑creation of Bach’s Matthew Passion by young Felix Mendelssohn in 1829 and the first performance of Marschner’s « German Romantic opera in three acts », Hans Heiling, in 1833. That ambition was taken over by his successor, Friedrich‑Wilhelm IV (1795‑1861), who managed to hire the two most famous Berlin‑born composers of the time, Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, to maintain his policy of cultural prestige. Similarly, in 1847 Nicolai was called to direct Berlin’s Royal Opera and the Lutheran Cathedral’s chorus: his Lustigen Weiber was his first opera as court composer.

6Alone among these three operas, Nicolai’s shows the emblematic scenes of the play, Falstaff’s three punishments, the clothes‑basket episode, his beating by Ford as the witch of Brentford and his pinching and burning by the fairies in the forest as each episode provided a grand finale for each of the three acts. Nicolai limited himself to ten of the play’s characters so as to achieve the balance between the women’s and the men’s voices in the traditional main vocal quartet. Frau Fluth/Mrs Ford is a soprano, Frau Reich/Mrs Page, slightly older here, a mezzo‑soprano, Herr Fluth/Mr Ford a baritone, Herr Reich/Mr Page, now a Justice of the Peace, a bass. Anne is a soprano and Fenton, now a poor but honest young man, a Mozartian tenor as befits the pair of young lovers. Her ill‑fated suitors include Dr Cajus and Junker Spärlich/Squire Slender. A light tenor as befits a nincompoop, that moneyed industrialist has little to say for himself and never gets very far in his sonnet except for « O süsse Anna », the play’s « Oh sweet Anne Page », which he repeats ad absurdum. His rival, the mature French quack, is a buffo baritone who combines traits belonging to Sir Hugh Evans, as he speaks with a strong French accent, and to the play’s Doctor’s, as his part is liberally sprinkled with French words. He is a stock character of the time, the stage Frenchman, created in the wake of the anti‑French movement mentioned earlier on, exacerbated by the Napoleonic Wars and German nationalism13. Falstaff is a basso profundo, a very popular part in opera‑buffa as the part of Osmin in Mozart’s Seraglio indicates. His lower register offers sharp contrast with both the other men, especially Fluth, and or the wives: it also clearly identifies him as the villain. Nicolai’s adherence to the models of opera‑buffa and selection of characters so as to achieve musical effects result in simple plotlines. Thus Sir Hugh Evans and his servant, Mistress Quickly, Shallow and Falstaff’s followers disappear and the Host of the Garter Inn is here a mere spoken part. Herr Fluth is apprised of his wife’s first tryst with Falstaff through an anonymous letter, and by Falstaff himself in act II, as in the play.

7The plot concentrates on the women’s revenge on Falstaff and on Ford’s jealousy and Anne’s scheme to wed Fenton despite her parents’ wishes. The women are given great musical prominence and their arias are evenly distributed over each act as they do all the string‑pulling necessary to achieve their goals, especially Frau Fluth. She takes the lead in castigating the Fat Knight and decides to have fun at his and her husband’s expense, while Frau Reich often plays second fiddle. She shares two duets with Frau Fluth and is given one aria in act III, the N° 10 Ballade that narrates the story of Herne the Hunter, after her husband suggests Falstaff’s last punishment at the hand of the whole community and cleverly exploits her low voice. Consequently, the first act, scene 1, opens with Frau Fluth reading Falstaff’s love letter and soon being joined by her neighbour in a duet, N° 1 Duett, where Frau Reich approves of Frau Fluth’s plans14. In the second scene, before Falstaff’s first visit to her house, Frau Fluth is given a grand aria, N° 3 Rezitativ und Arie, a two‑part aria di furore in the best Italian fashion, a form borrowed from opera seria which confirms her status as prima donna. She asserts the need for women to be wily and cunning so as to punish men mercilessly as they are naturally mean, and she justifies her scheming in the name of good fun15. During the hurly burly of the first Finale, N° 14 Finale,while the men, led by Herr Fluth, unsuccessfully ransack the house, the two women share a quiet duet where she decides on Falstaff’s second punishment, arguing that women can be both wily and honest. Yet again, in the last part of the finale, Frau Fluth’s utterly convincing heartfelt protest « Ach, einst jenen Tagen » leads to the ensemble, where the chorus first expresses her sympathy for the seemingly deeply offended woman and then upbraids her jealous husband for his tyrannical behaviour, a note that clearly departs from the original. Moreover, she then threatens her husband with divorce for mental cruelty, eliciting yet again the chorus’s sympathy and approval. In the act 2 duet with Fluth and the finale, N° 8 Duett & N° 9 Finale, she has pluck enough to cope with her husband’s unexpected return and to withstand his mad accusations and threats not in so many words as with a display of laughing coloraturas, thus letting him make a literal fool of himself while she asserts her vocal, and so moral, superiority.

8Anna, the heroine of the second plot, knows perfectly well what she wants and how to get it. After Fenton’s sweet Italianate serenade in scene 4, act 2, the N° 7Romanze, « Horch, die Lerche singt im Haim16 », a popular operatic set‑piece where he appropriately calls up the lark of Romeo and Juliet fame, she tells her sweetheart that she belongs to him alone, much to the chagrin of the two suitors hiding in the bushes, in the N° 7, Szene, Romanze, Duettino und Quartettino, a comic vocal quartet showing the twain’s resolve and the jilted suitors’ discomfiture. Anna is given a great aria in act 3, scene 1, N° 11, Rezitativ und Arie, built along the lines of Frau Fluth’s in act 1, where she deliberately decides to deceive both her parents and suitors by sending the red costume she is supposed to wear to Spärlich and the green one to Dr Cajus, so that each will mistake the other for her, while she herself will wear white. She eventually joins the two wives in the final epilogue‑like Terzettino‑Finale, in a vision of the three Fates, or a Gravesian version of the three ages of Woman, thus asserting the superiority of the women over the men, another element inherited from opera‑buffa.

9Unlike the women, the men, except for passion‑drunk Fenton and Falstaff, have small or few solo parts. Reich first appears in a duet‑duel with Fenton in act 1, scene 1, the N° 2, Rezitativ und Duett, designed to set out the opera’s love interest and to show Fenton’s determination to marry Anna. Fluth shares two extended duets with his wife included in the act 1 and act 2 finales where he fully gives vent to his jealousy and fury, causing the wild chase for Falstaff in the second finale. Before, he shares the act 2 N° 6 Rezitativ and Duet with Falstaff when disguised as Bach, he begs for his help in wooing Frau Fluth. Falstaff remains true to the type depicted by the play: the womanizer, the drunkard, the liar and the coward without the play’s extravagant vitality that elicits the audience’s sympathy. He makes his first stage entrance at Frau Fluth’s to suitably grandiloquent ceremonial music in act 1, scene 2, and his amorousness is conveyed by cheap sentimental terms of endearment. A round of carousing with the Garter Inn’s customers revives his dampened spirits after his dip in the Thames, in a drinking song, N° 8Lied mit Chor in act 2, another set‑piece, deriving from Osmin’s in Mozart’s Seraglio17. He proves to be as mean as that ancestor in the dialogue with the Garter’s Host and the burghers that opens act 2. The dialogue reveals a rather obnoxious champagne‑addicted character who insults the Host to whom he owns money and swindles the burghers out of theirs in a drinking bout he is sure to win, a rather despicable creature that well deserves his nemesis.

10Nicolai’s Falstaff derives from the well‑known of opera‑buffa type, Gerontes, and the Italian buffo style characterizes the opera’s comic scenes, the women’s opening duet, the duet between Fluth and Falstaff « In einen Wäschekorb » and the first two finales, whileFrau Fluth’s aria and Fenton’s serenade belong to the Bel canto tradition, an influence underlined by the use of Italian titles for some of these musical numbers. Yet Nicolai is totally Germanic when it comes to the « fantasy » aspect of his libretto18. Resorting to fantasy is a clever way of dealing with the play’s last act which, in a comedy, is generally the weakest as all the conflicts are usually solved there and then, while it is the most intense in a tragedy as the climax erupts after the build‑up of dramatic tension. Here the fantastic note is introduced in act 3, scene 1, with Frau Reich’s Herne Ballade in an operatic volkslied style and Anna’s exalted grand aria invoking Titania. The fantastic forest scene that follows takes up nearly most of the act and adds up to half an hour of music so as to provide a balance with the other finales. Nicolai here emulates Weber’s Freischütz and Marschner’s Hans Heiling, which refer to the dark forces of the night embodied by Herne, and Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, as Anna dresses up as Titania and Fenton as Oberon. The fantasy note was sure to be a hit with German audiences familiar with folk legends, fairy tales and other « Romantic » operas using supernatural elements such as those quoted above, or with Marschner’s DerVampyr (Leipzig, 1828), Lortzing’s Undine (Magdeburg, 1845) or for that matter Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman (Dresden, 1843). Yet, the fantastic note is here in a mild mode, that of the mock‑fantastic, nearer to Mendelssohn’s Erste Walpurgisnacht (1843) or his Midsummer Night’s Dream’s moonlight‑drenched forest, rather than Weber’s hair‑raising Wolf’s Glen scene in his Freischütz.

11The note is struck right from the beginning of the opera whose overture, modelled on Weber’s for his Freischütz, incorporates no less than five themes from the forest scene in the order in which they appear in the third act19. The chorus’s invocation to the moon, N° 12 Mondaufgang, like the many Hymns to Night of the German Romantic era, sets the musical scene20. The charming N° 13 Terzettino shows Falstaff‑as‑stag tantalisingly close to realising his fondest wishes as the women lure him on before they disappear. He crouches in fear as the fairies, guided by Titania and Oberon, appear for the N° 14 Chor und Tanz der Elfen, after which they retire hand in hand to the forest chapel. Herne (Herr Reich) then orders the mosquitoes and wasps to sting Falstaff in the N° 15 Mückentanz, during which Spärlich and Cajus also disappear hand in hand. Falstaff is then set to by more fantastic creatures in the N° 16 Allgemeiner Tanz und Chor that unleashes the general charivari, until the repentant sinner confesses and begs for mercy. The carnival masks fall off for the happy ending and it is then up to the three women to seek the audience’s approval for their way of dealing with the old lecher and procuring Anna’s happiness in the Terzettino‑Finale.

12This is familiar practice both in drama and opera and it does improve on the play’s brutal last rhyming couplet, but why should the women beg for forgiveness? Anna’s behaviour in the last act might be excused as she is driven by love and enthralled by the moonlight, as her great aria protests. The crown of lilies she wears to the forest chapel where she weds Fenton is a sign of the purity of her intentions, but her behaviour was thought unseemly by some critics. It particularly irritated the French reviewer Félix Clément in his Dictionnaire Lyrique ou Histoire des Operas, when Nicolai’s work was produced in French in Paris at the Théâtre‑Lyrique Impérial in 186621. He strongly objected to the so‑called innocent maiden’s laughing at her father, lying to her mother, giving her lover assignations unchaperoned, eloping with him, and marrying against her parents’ wishes22. The nineteenth‑century opera‑house being the neutral ground where future spouses often first met, Anna has little to commend her as a role model: she seems more like a forward little minx than a dutiful fiancée. Of course her ploy is the stuff of comedy and the tyranny of fathers and husbands a staple of the genre. Yet the word « tyranny », linked to Fluth’s jealousy, an accusation repeated by all in the act 1 finale, must have struck a nerve with German audiences of the BiedermeierVormärz era, long familiar with Lessing’s Emilia Galotti (1772) or Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe (1782)23. They had to endure the reactionary policies on freedom of thought and of expression imposed by Friedrich‑Wilhelm III in the second part of his long reign (1797‑1840), which were somewhat toned down by his son Friedrich‑Wilhelm IV, who dreamt of the enlightened despotism of the pre‑Napoleonic German Reich. In Vienna Nicolai had had a taste of Metternich’s 1819 Carlsbad Decrees, which set up a system of persecution and oppression with censorship and the prohibition of political parties. His opera was created in the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution, quickly recuperated by the king in Berlin who ignored its democratic objectives. Similarly, Frau Fluth’s hostilely negative vision of men is part of comedy’s war of the sexes, but her repeated threats of divorce, echoed by all, refers to the burning issue that had agitated Germany since the late eighteenth century. Then authorised by law, divorce was banned by the Code Napoleon and the restoration in 1814, and would have to wait until 1884 to be re‑introduced. Whatever his politics, and despite opera‑buffa’s customary ferocity, Nicolai’s audiences must have felt a frisson at seeing men so generally castigated and women thus vindicated in an opera that updates Shakespeare to cater to the tastes of the audiences of its time, combining the opera‑buffa and Bel canto traditions with the German Romantic spirit.

II. Verdi’s Falstaff: an ode to a great artist

13While Nicolai’s opera is the work of a young man, eager to ensure his success among his peers, Verdi’s work is the astonishing production of a 79‑year old composer at the end of a long successful career. Verdi (1813‑1901), fascinated by the Bard’s plays, « a magic lantern » for him, had already set Shakespeare to music in his 1847 Macbeth and his 1887 Otello, not to mention such projects as The Tempest, Hamlet and especially King Lear24, to which he devoted many unfruitful years. Italian adaptations of Shakespeare, themselves translations of the Shakespeare « imitations » of Jean‑François Ducis (1733‑1816), based on Pierre‑Antoine de la Place’s French translations, had circulated in Italy early in the century, as evinced by Berio di Salsa’s libretto for Rossini’s 1816 Otello. Verdi was indebted to his friend, Count Andrea Maffei, a respected translator from English and German and sometime collaborator, and to Carlo Rusconi’s new translation of Shakespeare (1838) for his knowledge of the Bard25. An admirer of Victor Hugo26, himself largely indebted to Shakespeare27, Verdi may have been acquainted with Dumas’s Shakespeare’s translations for his Théâtre‑Historique during his many stays in Paris. Dumas’s 1847 Hamlet was a model for two operas, Ambroise Thomas’s 1868 Hamlet and Arrigo Boito’s 1865 Amleto. TheFrancophile Boito (1842‑1918), an eminent personality, composer, poet and librettist, knew François‑Victor Hugo’s Shakespeare translations of 1857‑187228. His own translations of the Bard, the basis for his libretto for Verdi’s Otello29, definitely introduced Italians to Shakespeare. Boito had been a leading member of the Scapigliatura, the Milan‑born artistic movement of the « Bohemians » arising with Italy’s struggles for unity in the 1860’s. It aimed at rejuvenating Italian culture through foreign influences, notably from German Romanticism, the French bohemians, Hugo and the poetry of Baudelaire, and by introducing Italy to Wagner’s music. Translating Shakespeare for the opera was a way to complete the annexation of the Bard to Italian culture and assert its place among European nations at a time when Italy had recently completed its union as a modern democracy.

14Nicolai’s Lustige Weiber, which Verdi had seen at the Milan Scala in 1849, may have prompted him to compose a comic opera that might atone for the failure of the disastrous 1840 opera‑buffa Giono di Regno, his only comic opera so far30. Verdi’s humour was most evident in his 1862‑1869 Forza del Destino with the comic characters of Fra Melitone and Trabucco. Yet his Falstaff is widely removed from Salieri’s and Nicolai’s Lustige Weiber opera‑buffa treatment. It is called a « commedia lirica » or « lyric comedy », a new appellation which, according to Jean‑François Labie, emphasizes its literary content and its move away from farce to comedy of characters31. It may also best describe Verdi’s new musical style, a fast‑flowing, supple conversation which abandons musical numbers for uninterrupted, fairly short scenes of extraordinary melodic prodigality which include moments of lyrical stasis that can be identified as arias, an illustration of Falstaff’s inexhaustible wit. Boito’s libretto follows the source‑text, removes its poorest jokes, keeps some of its best images, turns its somewhat plodding prose into excellent verse which has to be read to be enjoyed as, during some of the great ensembles, act 1, scene 2 or act 2, scene 2, it is impossible to make out what each character says.

15Verdi’s key words to his librettists was always to « make it short » and Boito provided him with a streamlined version of the play, shortening the action to three acts in two scenes each, limiting the episodes in which Falstaff is tricked by the wives to two, the basket and the forest scenes, with a cast of ten to achieve better musical characterization. Sir Hugh Evans, Justice Shallow and Slender are conflated into Dottor Cajus, a light tenor, Anne Page’s only unlucky suitor. She becomes Nanetta Ford and Quickly a friendly neighbour who joins in for a quartet of women’s voices with Alice Ford and Meg Page, thus indicating their total federacy against the men. Page disappears, leaving the stage to Ford and Falstaff, two baritones, emphasizing their kinship as trouble‑makers. Falstaff retains Bardolfo, a tenor whom eventually Cajus marries, and Pistola, a bass, as his servants. Boito obeyed Verdi’s wish for terseness and fluidity by restructuring the comedy, thus giving it a personal slant and revealing their strong sympathy for the women and the lovers. In act I they oppose the world of sound and fury of the men, – the violent banter, invective, jealousy, competition and brawling of the Garter Inn, in scene 1, with Falstaff as its primary cause –, to the quiet world of friendship, affection and confidence of the women in the pastoral setting of the Fords’ garden in scene 232. Their unity is shown by the stichomythic pattern of interlinked verse that culminates in their woodwind‑supported quartet in 6/8 pastoral compound‑time that contrasts with the men’s caricatural martial duple‑time ensemble which follows. From the latter the subtle harmonies of Fenton’s and Nanetta’s first love duet emerge. Another stichomythic women’s quartet seals their plot against Falstaff and is followed by a reprise of the lovers’ duet before the great Revenge Ensemble which superposes the women’s ternary rhythm over the men’s binary time. But the last word of the act goes to the women with a reprise of Alice’s mocking quotation of Falstaff’s letter. They eventually get their way, castigating both Falstaff and Ford and rewarding the lovers’ passion. Act 2, scene 1 organises the baiting of Falstaff by Quickly and then Ford. Scene 2 shows his comeuppance at the hands of the women. Act 3, scene 1 stages Falstaff recovering from the Thames waters and Quickly’s last embassy and the opera ends with the forest scene, where Verdi deploys his own brand of fantasy and magic, laced with the parody of some of his previous work33.

16In this way the opera makes up and atones for all the brutish male‑generated violence that is the stuff of all Verdi’s previous opera, his 1887 Otello being one last example which Ford’s Hymn to jealousy in 2.2, pointedly refers to. No aria di furore here for Alice, who leads the wives on, as her act 2 aria « Gaie comari di Windsor » indicates, but firmness of purpose, wit, affectionate understanding and generous forgiveness for Ford and Falstaff, as befits an ideal mother. Another case in point is the treatment of the lovers. They benefit from Alice’s or Quickly’s protection, and Nanetta’s tears in act 2, scene 2, dry fast as her mother refuses Cajus as her husband. As their act 1, scene 2 duets indicate, the lovers inhabit their own secluded world of requited passion and sexual dalliance, which is confirmed in act 2, scene 2. During the hunt for Falstaff, they take refuge behind a screen, oblivious to the commotion, for a short duet. The long arching legato line of their cantus firmus then dominates the polyphonic hubbub of the chase until the sound of their kissing betrays their presence. The forest scene, act 3, scene 2, opens with Fenton’s lovely sonnet, a closed poetic form which refers to the far‑away world of Petrarch in form and Dante in content. Nanetta’s Fairy Queen Song and the minuet that accompanies their nuptials confirm their inhabiting the world of dreams and illusion34. As Gilles de Van points out35, it is as if Boito and Verdi posited the need to believe in dreams as an antidote to social turmoil and political disappointment in Italy or the general sense of fin desiècle decadence that affected Europe at the time, something which Falstaff articulates in his act 3, scene 1 monologue: « Mondo reo. Non c’e piu virtu. Tutto declina. [...] Impinguo troppo. Ho dei peli grigi36. »

17If Verdi’s first letter to Boito hesitated over Falstaff or the Merry Wives as the title of their new work37, and if he believed Alice to be the opera’s main protagonist38, Boito clearly thought otherwise, as the opera’s title indicates. Not only does the opera open in media res with Cajus complaining of Pancione’s unruly behaviour39, thus putting him in the spotlight, but the latter is on stage but for one scene and he has the last word of the opera as he leads the final fugue, making him the opera’s maître d’œuvre. Boito achieved a complete rehabilitation of the Merry Wives Fat Knight as he provided a vision of Falstaff as a round character, to borrow E. M. Forster’s phrase, by quoting from the Henry IV plays where he appears40, fleshing him out with new traits that Verdi lovingly underlined. As in the play, Falstaff still entertains illusions about his powers of seduction, as his self‑satisfied ariosos « O amor! Sguardo di stella! » of 1.1, and « Va vecchio John »of 2.2, indicate, and about his talents for cozening: « L’arte sta in questa massima; ‘Rubar con garbo e a tempo’. Siete dei rozzi artisti41 ». But his scathing Honour Monologue in 1.1, deriving from the Merry Wives, 2.2, quotes his speech to Prince Henry in 5.1, of Henry IV, Part I, « Can honour set a leg? », to denounce the vacuity of the word, a touch of nihilism which establishes his kinship with Boito’s heroic losers, his Amleto, his Barnaba in Gioconda, his Mefistofele and Nerone, his Iago, who all strive and fail to gain recognition in a world that has lost its values42. His charming microscopic aria « Quand’ero paggio », 2.1, when he thinks back on his days as a slender page‑boy, was suggested by his « When I was about thy years, Hal », Henry IV, Part I (2.4.244)43. It makes his disgruntled brooding on the world’s wickedness and old age quoted above in 3.1, all the more poignant. He then discusses the merits of wine, inspired by a long soliloquy in 4.3, Henry IV, Part II, on the excellence of sherry, « A good sherry‑sack hath a two‑fold operation in it » (4.1.434‑5). Boito restricts himself to the first operation suggested by the play, which is to free imagination, inspiration and invention, and particularly musical invention as a huge trill then invades the whole orchestra, as if the world were being shaken by an enormous fit of laughter. This foreshadows the last act when Falstaff, quoting from the Merry Wives, ruefully admits « I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass » (5.5.102) and follows up with a shortened quote from 1.2 of Henry IV, Part II, « The brain of this foolish‑compounded clay, man, is not able to invent anything that tends to laughter more than I invent, or is invented on me. I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men » (1.2.4‑7),thus linking Falstaff with Comus, the god of festivity, revels and nocturnal dalliances, the eternal Lord of Misrule44. This quip, which justifies his existence, and that of the opera, is approved by all. It signals the old reprobate’s return to the fold, and anticipates the final fugue’s « Everything in the world is a jest », with almost Shakespearian spirit. A dazzling piece of craftsmanship and humour, whose subject initially imitates the braying of an ass, it encapsulates the opera’s tensions between disillusion or loss of faith and the need for art and illusion– hence its ambiguous « Tutti gabbàti, All deceived » –, Boito’s wish to create a Falstaff of almost tragic grandeur to rank with Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s own characters and his wish for Verdi to end his career more splendidly with Falstaff than with Otello45. In the final analysis, Boito and Verdi more than succeeded as they created a « seriously comic » opera character, who continues to generate conflicting interpretations, and whose guarded, terse motto, « A good laugh is the best medicine », chimes in with the views of modern man in a world that for ever lost its innocence after WWI, and Falstaff remains one of Boito’s and Verdi’s most successful and positive protagonists.

III. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love:English Pastoral Revived

18As he defensively explains in his Preface to his score of Sir John in Love, when Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872‑1958) contemplated his own Merry Wives opera in the 1920s46, he found himself in the difficult position of competing with works which already featured the Fat Knight amid renewed Shakespeare fervour in Britain and critical debate about the figure of Falstaff. The Tercentenary of 1916 had resulted in two monuments in Bardolatry, Walter Raleigh’s Shakespeare’s England and Israel Gollancz’s A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, while Edward Thomas’s 1915 This England: An Anthology from her Writers included « more Falstaff than Harry47. RVW’s Preface quickly dismisses Verdi’s Falstaff and praises both his close friend Gustav Holst’s 1925 At the Boar’s Head48, a one‑act opera based on the Falstaff scenes in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and Nicolai’s opera, « the most successful of all Falstaff operas », though with « hardly any Shakespeare in his libretto49 ». Strangely enough, and despite his admiration for the older composer, RVW forgets Edward Elgar’s 1913 Falstaff, his symphonic study in C minor, op. 68. Granted, it is no opera but was composed when Falstaff was being turned into a myth as the tragic centre of the Henry IV plays. In the « Analytical Essay » of his work published in The Musical Times of September 1913, Elgar shows his awareness of the continuing critical debate around the Fat Knight and quotes both Maurice Morgann’s celebrated 1777 Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff, reprinted in 1903 and 1912, and Edward Dowden’s 1875 ShakspereA Critical Study of his Mind and Art50. RVW must have heard echoes of the debate as, the same year as Elgar’s Falstaff, he was musical director at the iconic Stratford‑upon‑Avon festival with Sir Frank Benson, the composer’s first direct exposure to the glamorous world of the Shakespearian stage, and they must have provided food for thought about his own Falstaff opera.

19The festival included Richard II, Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V and Richard III, with The Merry Wives as one of its new plays. Contrary to general opinion, it captivated him: as he admitted to his friend Francis Tovey in 1927, the memory of Windsor Forest’s « oofs and goblins » haunted the rustic Scherzo of his Pastoral Symphony of 192151. Acting on two references in the play to « Greensleeves », a tune popular with Elizabethans he had found in William Ballet’s Lute Book of 158452, RVW wrote music for the play based on it, later to be included as Mrs Ford’s seduction song to Falstaff in act III, scene 2 and the opera’s 4.2, entr’acte53. That same year he heard the British baritone Theodore Byard sing the French 15th‑century pastourelle « Vrai dieu d’amour comfortez moi » which, according to Michael Kennedy54, provided the second impetus for composing a Merry Wives opera, as it later became Doctor Caius’s act I love song to Anne Page. At that time RVW was writing his first « romantic ballad » opera, Hugh the Drover55, as a culmination of his love for folksong, which had been kindled by Cecil Sharp’s work for the English Folk Song Society early in the century and had led RVW to think of folksong as a way to rejuvenate English music: hence the folksongs incorporated in Hugh and Sir John. At the same time, he was editing the English Hymnal, and discovering the beauties of English Tudor music: hence two emblematic works of 1910, his Fantasia on English Folksongs, or Studies for an English Ballad Opera56and the great Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The pre‑war years in Britain were the « Great Awakening » of the English Musical Renaissance, with the discovery of folksong, Tudor and Elizabethan music and a reappraisal of Purcell’s music, with which RVW was associated. In 1910 he edited his Welcome Odes for the Purcell Society and participated in the first revival since their creation of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and of his Fairy Queen, an opera which throws his shadow on Sir John57.

20Originally entitled The Fat Knight, the opera, composed between 1924 and 1928, was renamed Sir John in Love, which might be construed as a nod to the spurious legend of Queen Elizabeth asking the playwright to show Falstaff in love in a comedy and yet, as we shall see, it rather sets Love and Romance as the « Idée » of the opera, not a dirty old man’s lechery. Direct stage experience probably inspired RVW’s streamlining of the play into four acts and eight scenes, in a version which follows the original play closely enough, – though it foregoes Falstaff’s beating as the witch of Brentford –, restructures it, collates some of its repetitive scenes and abandons cumbersome subplots to concentrate on the main ones: the wives’ revenge on Falstaff and Ford’s jealousy, and Anne Page’s marriage with Fenton. The opera uses most of the original text for its libretto yet interpolates lyrics from Elizabethan poets, in the same way as the play does when quoting Sir Philip Sidney or Christopher Marlowe, most of them raising the opera to the level of the galleries, high above the groundlings.

21Indeed, true to its title, the opera, happily plundering Arthur Quiller‑Couch’s poetic anthology58, explores the many facets of Love in the pastoral mode which often inspired RWV. His folksong‑inspired Hugh the Drover is set in the Cotswolds, the epitome of England’s « green world » of pastoral. His 1921 one‑act opera, The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, conflates the Delectable Mountains and the Country of Beulah episodes in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress59. Subtitled « a pastoral episode », it is linked with his Symphony n° 3, A Pastoral Symphony, completed in 1921 but paradoxically conceived in 1916 on the Somme front, where RVW was serving as an ambulance driver, and associated with « a wonderful Corot‑like landscape in the sunset » seen from a steep hill and the melancholy sound of a bugle60. In Sir John, Love appears first as a sickness, as Ford’s jealousy indicates, and the mocking of Ford is cleverly organised. His Cuckold monologue « Love my wife? I will be patient », act 1, scene 1 is followed by the wives’ duet « When daisies pied » which borrows the « Owl and Cuckoo Dialogue » that concludes Love’s Labour Lost act 5, and becomes the opera’s act 1 finale. The duet teases Ford atrociously and denounces men as ridiculous easily‑defeated prattlers or trouble‑makers, a view put forward earlier in the women’s trio « Sigh no more ladies » that borrows from act 2, scene 3 of Much Ado about Nothing61.Ford gives vent to his jealousy in the act 2 Garter Inn scene and is generally mocked as a monster in the act 3 finale. The crowd assembled in his house then surrounds him for a round to the tune of Peg‑a‑Ramsey, a coarse folksong associated with his jealousy (and Malvolio’s yellow hose in Twelfth Night), ironically introduced by the Garter Host in act 3, scene 2 with the pitiful narrative of a former bachelor, now a henpecked husband. Ford finally obtains his pardon with the beautifully moving aria « Pardon me, wife » that opens act 4, scene 1, which Mrs Ford grants with a quotation from Richard Edwardes’s madrigal « The falling out of faithful friends, renewal is of love62 ».

22Falstaff is associated with both the bawdy and the refined expressions of love. His drinking song, « A cup of wine that’s brisk and fine » of act 2, scene 2 borrowed from the 5.3 orchard scene in Henry IV, Part 2, establishes his link with the dissolute Prince Hal but also the pastoral Gloucestershire celebrated by composer Gustav Holst and Ivor Gurney, the poet‑composer. His retainers comment on his plans to make love to Ford’s wife to the tune of « John come kiss me now » noted by William Byrd63. Double‑dealing Quickly, soon to act as a procuress, enters the Ford house in act 2, scene 1, to the strains of the mildly bawdy folksong « Lovely Joan », which tells of quick‑witted Joan’s turning the tables on a sex‑minded nobleman. But Falstaff and his foils, the older Doctor Caius and Sir Hugh Evans, demonstrate a fondness for pastoral poetry. True to the play, Evans quotes from Marlowe’s Passionate Shepherd tohis Love, but RVW’s Doctor conveys his love with the French pastourelle quoted above. After Quickly’s embassy, Falstaff composes a love song to Mrs Ford « O that joy so soon should waste », borrowed from Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels, whose precious Lily‑like poetry is echoed in « Have I caught my heavenly jewel64 », the three stanzas from the Second Song in Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella that Falstaff quotes, as he literally stages the poem where Astrophil tries to make love to and kiss the unwilling Stella. But this is Falstaff’s response to Mrs Ford’s plaintive Greensleeves, delivered as she seductively settles on her couch. This of course is pure irony at the older man’s expense, and the quotes Falstaff borrows are like many of the clothes with which he magnificently and self‑admiringly attires himself at the close of act 2. Yet the evocation of Pastoral’s green world does affect the opera and the Windsor Forest scene in particular.

23For all its « urchins, ouphes and fairies », their grotesque gestures and the Allegro pesante of their Dance as they pinch Falstaff black and blue, the connexion with the Arden Forest is made by Falstaff who dresses up like the stag, hurt and weeping, that Jaques espies in act 2, scene 2 of As you like it, that paragon of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies and pastoral dramas65.Moreover, Falstaff leads the final chorus « Whether men do laugh or weep » by quoting Thomas Campion whose poem clearly echoes Jaques’s « All the world is a stage » monologue in that comedy. As he himself indicates, « I do perceive that I am made an ass », and behind Falstaff’s antlers we can see Bottom’s ears as the opera concludes with a general dance led by a bag piper playing « Hay Hannikin » that reminds us of the act 5 Fairies’ dance in A Midsummer’s Night Dream or Purcell’s Fairy Queen66.

24Concluding an opera with a dance derives from the home‑grown English tradition of the masque, an ancestor of English opera according to some, best illustrated by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones. RVW was both fascinated and familiar with the genre, as in 1905 he and his friend Holst composed or arranged music for the revival of a Jonson‑Jones masque, Pan’s Anniversary or The Shepherd’s Holyday67, as part of the Shakespeare Birthday Celebration at Stratford. The Interlude, act 3, scene 1, the opera’s central scene, an addition of 1933, was modelled on a masque. The chorus appears here for the first time and its entrance, false exit and final exit enhance the theatricality of this play‑within‑the plays episode where the figure of Anne is raised to quasi‑mythological status. Fenton first asks for the Garter Host’s help in his suit, before Anne appears as some May goddess in a Robert Herrick‑like tableau among a party of young retainers singing the traditional « A‑maying, a‑playing ». She explains why she should refuse Fenton before she asks him to woo for himself, which he does by quoting « Beauty clear and fair » from John Fletcher’s play The Elder Brother. Fenton and Anne are then crowned by the chorus who sings « Fair and fair and twice so fair » from George Peele’s Arraignement of Paris. The chorus circles around the lovers with ceremonial gestures to bestow their blessing on the happy pair, before the Host returns to the Garter and its world of trivialities with Nicholas Udal’s country wedding song « I mun be married a Sunday » in his comic play Ralph RoisterDoister.

25The lovers’ plot is thus significantly expanded as Anne features in three of the opera’s major scenes. In act 1, scene 1, the opera veers closely to tragedy, the way Shakespeare’s romantic comedies often do, as she expresses her sadness at the prospect of marrying Caius by quoting Moll’s lament « Weep eyes, break heart » in act 5, scene 2 of Thomas Middleton’s cynical comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, where Moll contemplates suicide as she cannot marry her beloved Touchstone Junior. A melancholy oboe, which has escaped from RVW’s Pastoral Symphony, underscores her despair which Fenton, announced offstage by harp arpeggios, tries to dispel by quoting « Do but look on her eyes » the second stanza from Ben Jonson’s Part Four of A Celebration of Charis, Her Triumph, to a glorious tune which achieves full treatment as Anne’s wedding anthem in the last act. Fenton then begins a passionate duet by quoting the third stanza of Ben Jonson’s poem, « Have you seen but a bright lily grow », to which Anne contributes by quoting Campion’s « Come, O come my life’s delight ». The duet foreshadows the opera’s final scene where Fenton and Anne make their entrance on the wedding cart all decorated with flowers, thus recalling the act 3 Interlude, as the chorus quotes the first stanza of the Jonson poem « See the chariot at hand here of love », in some Triumph of Love scene escaped from mythology or Jonson’s own 1606 Hymenaei, an allegory of marriage according to the rites of Roman antiquity.68This dovetails nicely with Falstaff’s final chorus and concludes an evocation of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, poetry and music in RVW’s own response to Verdi’s opera.


26Despite their differences in tone and structure, what is striking in the final analysis are the similarities of the three operas, which are dictated either by the source‑text, by the demands of opera or by the composers’ view of Falstaff. One case in point is the relationship between the Falstaff/Ford plot and the lover’s one. It is tenuous in the play and the operas accentuate the impression of an independent self‑moving plot as the lovers have little or no contact with Falstaff. This is particularly true of Falstaff and Sir John, where RVW sometimes sails very close to Verdi when he expands the lovers’ scenes and isolates them in a world of their own, either physically or poetically. But comedy, or opera‑buffa for that matter, is a mythos of Spring and renewal and the young lovers must be removed from any hint of mortality: hence their final apparition as King or Queen of the Fairies, on which Time has no purchase. However, the lovers’ isolation does throw more light on the deeply ambivalent figure of Falstaff, whose grotesque body is constantly exhibited as dominated by such primary needs as eating, drinking and having sex, and as such, if we follow Bakhtinian theory, is linked to birth and renewal and a celebration of the victory of life. While Nicolai’s Falstaff remains the old reprobate and predatory opportunist of the play, he does bring about the marriage of Fenton and Anna in the carnivalesque forest scene, and RVW’s Sir John gives his blessing to the happy couple and Anne’s parents when he appropriates Ford’s lines, « Stand not amazed. Here’s no remedy. In love the heavens themselves do guide the state ». Nicolai’s Falstaff is only the agent through which social hierarchies, etiquettes of everyday, conventional wisdom and accepted principles are overturned by normally suppressed voices in the forest’s or the opera’s carnival, where unacceptable behaviour is tolerated and where one’s natural behaviour can be revealed without fear of consequences, yet for long enough to make an impression on audiences. Verdi’s Pancione is a word artist who liberates people’s imagination and offers laughter as the only way to avoid the pit of Macbethian despair at life’s emptiness, while RVW’s Sir John becomes a melancholy philosopher who, like Jaques, casts a mildly cynical eye on Pastoral and its poetic conventions and on life’s little absurdities.

27All three operas celebrate opera as a genre, and more generally, artistic creation for various purposes. Each also celebrates Shakespeare in its own way. As Christine Roger indicates69, Nicolai’s Lustigen Weiber results from the will of German elites of the Vormärz to appropriate « all Shakespeare » and to elevate him to the rank of « third German classic », along with Goethe and Schiller. They established him as an icon of cultural and political importance as he became the symbol of what they saw as the deep kinship between the English and the German people. That was given a nationalistic slant in the 1930’s, when Hamburg University decided to award their Shakespeare Prize to RVW in 1937, which he very cautiously accepted in the name of all English musicians70, despite the political context and his dislike of Hitler. Vormärz German Shakespeare scholars urged their English counterparts to develop their own Shakespeare scholarship as they were working towards the foundation of the Deutsche Shakespeare‑Gesellschaft in 1864 in Weimar, the city of Goethe and Schiller. It is Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost that Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, Adrian Leverkühn, sets to music, and a German composer, Aribert Reimann whose King Lear was first performed in 1978, further indicating Shakespeare’s assimilation into German culture.

28Verdi’s Falstaff is the product of the composer’s long fascination for the kaleidoscopic world of a playwright of European stature and the librettist’s will to bring new blood to a decadent provincial Italian culture as the country was finally becoming united. RVW’s Sir John belongs to and nods at the long English tradition of turning Shakespeare into opera, inaugurated by William Davenant’s Macbeth of 1673, Thomas Shadwell’s 1674 Tempest and Purcell’s Fairy Queen of 1692, when Shakespeare was just beginning to be seen as the most important of what Dryden called « that giant race before the flood », long before he came to be regarded as Britain’s great national poet. His Sir John allows him to compose the English opera of his dreams but his interpolations of Elizabethan lyrics, folksong and Jonsonian masque paint a « Mermaid Tavern » portrait of the Bard, the symbol of England’s mythical Golden age71, thus providing, along with the two other operas, yet another contribution to the Shakespeare myth.


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1  See Giorgio Melchiori (ed.), The Merry Wives of Windsor, London, Arden, 2000, p. 95, 101, quoted by Julie Sanders in « In Windsor Forest and At the Boar’s Head : The "Falstaff Plays" and English Music in the early Twentieth Century », Shakespeare Survey, 60 (2007), p. 184.

2  This paper will concentrate on bona fide operas based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives and forget incidental music composed for the performance of the play, tone‑poems inspired by it or other works where the character of Falstaff makes an appearance. Highlights of The Merry Wives were translated into French by Pierre Antoine de la Place (1707‑1793) as Les Femmes de Bonne Humeur [an opera‑buffa title all to itself] ou les Commères de Windsor in 1746.

3  See Céline Frigau, « Adapting The Merry Wives of Windsor for the Italian Stage : Falstaff by Manfredo Maggioni and Michael Balfe », La Revue LISA, 9.2 (2011).

4  It was briefly performed in London in English as Falstaff in May 1864.

5  Re‑staged in 2006 at the English National Opera to considerable acclaim and reprised in 2012.

6  Frigau, ibidem.

7  Following the example of Henrietta Maria Bowdler’s 1807 Family Shakespeare, a Familien‑Shakspeare was to be published by Oskar Ludwig Bernhard Wolff (1799‑1851) in 1849.

8  We shall leave German‑reading scholars to do the synoptic reading of play and libretto themselves, as there is no place for such an exercise here and they will often easily recognize the Bard’s text adapted in German.

9  Eighteenth‑century Italian opera‑buffa was mostly drama incorporating elements from Commedia dell’arte, some of its language in the libretto’s text, together with some of its stock scenes or characters or some of its stock stage business. Its musical language was borrowed from opera‑seria with secco recitatives close to spoken speech accompanied by the harpsichord while the arias adopted fast tempos, major keys and short witty motives. The best‑known examples are Pergolesi’s Serva Padrona (1733) and Cimarosa’s Secret Marriage (1791).

10  The first translation of the Merry Wives in German by Heinrich Voss appeared between 1810 and 1815.

11  In his study of the Biedermeier, Bierdermeierzeit : Deutsch Literatur im Spannungsfeld zwischen Restauration und Revolution 1815‑1848, Friedrich Sengle describes the years 1815‑1848 as « The Shakespearomania era ». Quoted by Christine Roger in La réception de Shakespeare en Allemagne de 1815 à 1850, propagation et assimilation de la référence étrangère, Berne, Peter Lang, 2008, p. 7. Christine Roger, ibidem, p. 90.

12  Moritz Retzsch, Gallerie zu Shakspeare‘s dramatischen Werken, Leipzig, E. Fleischer, 1828‑1846. It was to enjoy international fame until late in the 19th century. Christine Roger, ibid., p. 293.

13  The stage‑Frenchman usually wore clothing harking back to late 18th‑century and pre‑Revolution days.

14 ?v =Rmp4QratRXI.

15 ?v =SQvp6RfYEus.

16 ?v =MMBpc4j37r4.

17 ?v =twfG_vpxUl0

18  The numbers’ titles are then written in German.

19 ?v =nH9qdS2oZGQ.

20 ?v =vVxGmpViSYk.

21  Les Joyeuses Commères de Windsor, opéra‑comique in three acts on a libretto adapted by Jules Barbier.

22  Félix Clément, Dictionnaire Lyrique ou Histoire des Operas, Paris, Pierre Larousse, 1876‑1880, p. 386.

23  It was to inspire Verdi’s Luisa Miller created at Naples San Carlo Theatre in December 1849.

24  See Franz Werfel’s fascinating novel, Verdi : Roman der Oper, Vienna, Paul Zsolnay Verlag, 1924, which devotes many pages to Verdi’s endeavours to complete this opera.

25  Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi, A Critical Guide, London, Pan Books, 1973, p. 169.

26  Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse is the basis for Verdi’s Rigoletto.

27  As Jonathan Bate indicates, Hugo’s Preface to his son’s translations of the Bard eventually grew into his major opus, William Shakespeare of 1864. Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare, London, Picador, 1997, p. 236.

28  See Costantino Maeder’s « Arrigo Boito’s Amleto : Two Enigmatic Versions Reversing Ducis and Changing Dumas », La Revue LISA, 9.2 (2011) ; and Francis Guinle’s « Hamlet : Standing the Test of Librettists », La Revue LISA, 9.2 (2011).

29  Boito undertook the translation of his Otello into French with his friend Camille Bellaigue while collaborating with Paul Solange in the translation of Falstaff.

30  Pierre Milza, Verdi, « Tempus », Paris, Perrin, 2004, p. 472.

31  Jean‑François Labie, « De la dérision à la grandeur : une comédie atypique », in Giuseppe Verdi, Falstaff, Paris, L’Avant‑scène Opéra, Editions Premières Loges, 2001, p. 119‑120.

32 ?v =k‑XcuPujX40.

33  The women’s litany‑like « Domine, fallo casto ! Lord, make him chaste ! » derives from his Requiem’s Hostias et preces.

34 ?v =X7827hcOz7g.

35  Gilles de Van, « Mélancolie de Falstaff ? », in Giuseppe Verdi, Falstaff, Paris, L’Avant‑scène Opéra, Editions Premières Loges, 2001.

36  « Wicked world ! There is no more virtue. Everything falls apart. […] I’m growing too fat. My hair grows grey ».

37  Osborne, op. cit., p. 474.

38  Verdi to Ricordi quoted by Jean‑Michel Brèque, « Quand Verdi et Sir John rajeunissent », in Giuseppe Verdi, Falstaff, Paris, L’Avant‑scène Opéra, Editions Premières Loges, 2001, p. 104.

39  Boito’s and Verdi’s affectionate code name for Falstaff referring to his girth.

40  Contrary to current usage which sets the play in Elizabethan times, Boito’s libretto is set at the time of Henry IV of England, as if to justify his borrowing from the Falstaff episodes in the Henry IV plays which Verdi had re‑read along with the Merry Wives before agreeing to compose the opera. Osborne, op. cit., p. 474.

41  « Such is the rule of the art : “Steal politely and at the right time” You are such crude artists ». (I.1).

42  See Costantino Maeder’s « Arrigo Boito’s Amleto » quoted above and his « Amleto de Boito et l’ambiguïté d’un dénouement heureux », in Walter Zidaric (ed.), Interculturalité, intertextualité : les livrets d’opéra fin xixe‑début xxe, Nantes, Presses Universitaires de Nantes, 2003, p. 9‑18. ?v =aOg9uH8kMmI.

43  Willliam Shakespeare, The Complete Works, Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (eds.), Basingstroke, Macmillan, 2007 (the quotes from all the plays are taken from this edition).

44  Paraphrasing Boito, Verdi was to write a farewell note on the manuscript score sent to Ricordi his publisher that reads : « It’s all finished. Go, go old John ! Go on your way for as long as you can. Amusing rogue, forever true behind the masks you wear in different times and places. Go, go on your way. Farewell ». Osborne, op.cit., p. 476.

45  Osborne, op. cit., p. 475. ?v =7E4S‑E2qAX8.

46  Henceforth called RVW, as is common usage.

47  Jonathan Bate, op. cit., p. 204.

48  In his « Verdi : A Symposium » of 1951, he explains that Boito’s medicated Shakespeare hardly gave Verdi a chance to write the broad tunes he enjoyed in his other operas like Rigoletto. Quoted by David Manning (ed.) in Vaughan Williams on Music, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 172.

49  Quoted by Ursula Vaughan Williams in R.V.W., A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford, [Oxford University Press, 1988], Clarendon Paperbacks, 2002, p. 174‑175.

50  Diana McVeagh, Elgar the Music Maker, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2007, p. 148‑150.

51  Hugh Cobbe (ed.), Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams 1895‑1958, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 154‑155.

52  Michael Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 197.

53 ?v =e0GQceYJPdE‎.

54  Michael Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, ibidem, p. 205.

55  Its composition was finished in 1914 but had to wait to wait till 1924 for its first production.

56  Performed once but never published, its subtitle foreshadows the use of folksong in Hugh the Drover.

57  For a complete study of RVW’s use of textual and musical quotations, see Gilles Couderc, « Vaughan Williams : Sir John in Love. Portrait de l’artiste à l’âge mur » in Walter Zidaric (ed.), Interculturalité, intertextualité : les livrets d’opéra 1915‑1930, Nantes, CRINI, Université de Nantes, 2005.

58  Arthur Quiller‑Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse (1250‑1900), first published in 1900, was extremely popular with WWI soldiers as a knapsack book, along with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. See Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 155‑169.

59  To be part of RVW’s 1951 three‑act opera of the same name.

60  Ursula Vaughan Williams, op. cit., p. 121.

61 ?v =6kkbH70ROZM.

62  Richard Edwardes (1523‑1536) included in Arthur Quiller‑Couch’s 1919 edition as Amantium Irae.

63 ?v =i8NbK9LAJwY.

64  Marie‑Thérèse Jones‑Davies, Ben Jonson, Paris, Aubier Montaigne, 1980, p. 169.

65 ?v =iqxUc5xAbnA. There is no freely available recording of that Forest Scene but many of RVW’s Windsor Forest cantata that adapts it. For a complete recording of the opera see ?v =HUHa2sjkqKI.

66 In The Fairy Queen’s act 1, a group of fairies pinch a blind poet.

67 Presented to James I on New Year’s Day 1625. Michael Kennedy, op. cit., p. 64.

68 ?v =zZ7AbTm7O6E.

69 Christine Roger, op. cit., 341‑348

70  Ursula Vaughan Williams, op. cit., p. 216‑218.

71  As in Shakespeare and his Friends at the Mermaid Tavern (1850) by John Faed (1819‑1902) in Shakespeare in Art, Jane Martineau (ed.), London, Merrell, 2003, p. 212.

Pour citer ce document

Par Gilles Couderc, «Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor at the Opera», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°9 - 2015, mis à jour le : 28/12/2019, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Gilles Couderc

Senior lecturer in English at the University of Caen (France), has written a PhD thesis on the libretti and the music in Benjamin Britten’s operas, Des héros au singulier, les héros des opéras de Benjamin Britten (University of the Sorbonne, 1999). He has published several articles on the operas and the works of Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, such as « Fantastique et images du mal dans The Turn of the Screw in Opéra et fantastique », Hervé Lacombe & Timothée Picard (ed.) Presses Universitai ...