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Verdi's 'Falstaff': Comic Depth (and Girth)

Sir John Falstaff is running out of money and looking for a quick fix. So he sets his sights on two rich women and writes love letters to both. But they're wise to his scheme and set up a little plan of their own to teach Falstaff a lesson. This story could be just a common domestic farce. Except the author was Shakespeare. Later, the play inspired Giuseppe Verdi to write his final opera, a hilarious comedy.

Composed when Verdi was nearly 80, Falstaff sparkles with freshness and originality, showing us that the aging master never even came close to losing his touch.

While you may be familiar with Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, you'll find that the character of Sir John Falstaff — the original fat knight — takes on even more vitality in Verdi's opera. The score is filled with invention, overflowing with wit and revelry. And as a total package, the opera also brims with insights into human nature.

Verdi wasn't the first composer to base an opera on the story of the down-and-out knight Falstaff. In the 18th century, Antonio Salieri also had a crack at it. Salieri's Falstaff was a classic opera buffa--meaning lots of ensemble singing, simple recitative and parody of so-called serious opera. And though it contains plenty of sparkling music, Salieri's version fell out of favor.

Verdi's, on the other hand, has always been popular. Verdi was famous for his love of Shakespeare; he already had Macbeth and Otello under his belt when he was casting about for the subject of a comic opera. His friend and librettist, Arrigo Boito, suggested The Merry Wives of Windsor. Boito worked up a rough draft, Verdi loved it, and by 1890, the two men had completed Falstaff. It received its premiere at Milan's La Scala opera house in 1893.

Falstaff, in fact, is a stock character from Elizabethan comedy: a loudmouth, bragging soldier, prone to overeating, overdrinking, lying and thieving. In Shakespeare's Henry IV, Falstaff makes his first appearance as a friend of Prince Hal. Hal's father, King Henry, accuses the "fat knight" of corrupting his son. But Falstaff's still lovable, and he makes an encore appearance in Shakespeare's Merry Wives. Verdi and librettist Boito borrowed from both plays to create the opera.

Verdi's comic genius begins in the opening measure, with a kind of off-kilter C-major chord. From then on, the action crackles, fast and furious.

In this edition of World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Falstaff, from the Millennium Center in Cardiff, Wales, with a star-studded cast including Bryn Terfelin the title role.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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