A feast of Falstaff: Sir John in opera

Thomas Aynsley Cook as Falstaff in Otto Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor. Pen and ink drawing by Matt Stretch, Feb. 15, 1878. Folger ART Box S915 no.7 (size XL)

There’s no other character from Shakespeare who has charmed the imaginations of opera composers and librettists more than Sir John Falstaff.

There are two core pieces of opera repertoire that feature Falstaff – Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor and Verdi’s Falstaff – not to mention operas by the likes of Antonio Salieri (Mozart’s arch-nemesis, should the award-winning play and movie Amadeus be believed), the Irish composer Michael Balfe, and British heavyweights Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Gustav Holst.

Interestingly, it’s only Nicolai’s work that uses the title Merry Wives of Windsor; Verdi, Balfe, Salieri, and Vaughan-Williams all use either ‘Falstaff’ or ‘Sir John’ in their opera titles, a testament to the popularity of the character, rather than the play.

Falstaff as the Basso Buffo

Why is it that Sir John has proven so popular over 200 odd years of opera history?

Arguably the main reason is that Falstaff fits the bill of one of the most beloved stock opera characters – that of the Basso Buffo (‘funny bass’), which truly came to the fore towards the end of the 18th century. Sometimes the Buffo is a slightly malevolent but pathetic character, and at times a slightly hapless foil to the main protagonist. Very rarely the hero, the Buffo is still often the most interesting and entertaining character – think Bartolo in Barber of Seville, Dulcamara in Elixir of Love, or Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier. It’s easy to see how Falstaff – whether as a direct Buffo or a near cousin – was an obvious choice for librettists and composers looking for new inspiration.

French composer Ambroise Thomas (who also wrote a relatively popular Hamlet opera) created a fairly bonkers Midsummer Night’s Dream, which isn’t based on the play, but instead includes Elizabeth I, Falstaff, and Shakespeare himself as characters. Sir John is the obvious choice for such a riotous undertaking.

Comedy over history

Although Falstaff appears in three Shakespeare plays – a fact made full use of by Orson Welles in his extraordinary film Chimes at Midnight – opera largely sticks to Merry Wives of Windsor and mostly ignores Henry IV Parts 1 & 2. Indeed, for all the hundreds of Shakespeare operas hardly any are based on the history plays.

It’s possible that the topic of (sometimes fairly obscure) English history was too removed for continental librettists and composers, and it’s notable how few historic English figures and stories are represented in opera. Elizabeth I is the most popular monarch on the opera stage, but even she features in few works, and the only major composer to pay much attention to English history was Gaetano Donizetti, with his set of Tudor operas. The lack of development of English-language opera between 1700 and 1900 (a slight generalization, but not by much) has a great part to play in this. Had England churned out popular opera composers at the same rate as Italy, Germany, or even France, we would likely be talking about a great Henry V opera, or Richard III, for instance.

“How to be a Falstaff”: A 19th-century article describing the costuming transformation that Victor Maurel went through in order to play Falstaff in Verdi’s opera. Folger ART File M453 no.2 (size M)

Aside from the lack of interest in the history plays, it’s easy to see why Merry Wives is the primary inspiration for librettists and composers. In addition to the larger-than-life Falstaff, there’s a colorful cast of supporting characters, plenty of hysterical plot twists and turns, and some stand-out set piece moments (hiding in the basket, the final forest scene, etc.). Of those supporting characters, it’s easy to see how composers would look at the likes of Ford, Fenton, and Nanetta and instantly see how they would fit into some of opera’s other conventions (a revenge aria for Ford, a high tenor love song for Fenton, a smaller soubrette role for Nanetta, etc.).

Holst’s At the Boar’s Head

Of the six Falstaff operas mentioned earlier, it is only Holst’s At the Boar’s Head that focuses on the events of the Henry IV plays. Both Holst and Vaughan-Williams were important players in the resurrection of traditional English music in the early 20th century (as notable British classical composers began to emerge, so too did their desire to promote the largely ignored or forgotten English music of previous centuries), and both composers relied heavily on traditional English melodies for their respective Falstaff operas.

The entirety of At the Boar’s Head takes place in the eponymous tavern, as Falstaff and Hal prop up the bar, and allow various characters to come in and out; it is, and certainly feels, episodic. Though not as obviously entertaining as the Merry Wives operas, what we do get is the relationship between Hal and Falstaff – surely one of the most fascinating in all of Shakespeare. Wouldn’t it be great to have a trilogy of Henry operas, to see this relationship develop dramatically and musically? Maybe one day …

The Leeds Opera Festival takes place between 23 and 27 August 2019 –


One Comment

  • We always love hearing more about Falstaff. Allegedly Queen Elizabeth’s favorite Shakespeare character, and many of us agree. Most great composers are said to have been inspired by Shakespeare’s works in at least one of their compositions.

    My wife and I saw “Chimes at Midnight” three times when it was finally re-released. Although it makes less use of Merry Wives of Windsor than composers did, it is extremely thought-provoking. It reminded me of an old hunch that Falstaff might be a veiled spoof of King Henry VIII. At his death, the king weighed an estimated 390 pounds, based on the size of his last suit of armor.

    Doing some research, I learned that the king’s morbid obesity got much worse after a jousting accident in 1536, when his fully armored horse landed on top of him, knocking him out, and putting him into a coma for two hours. It was only after that that he developed what is now known to be possible complications of traumatic brain injury–uncontrollable overeating, along with an uncontrollable temper.

    In fact, it was a mere four months after his accident that he had Anne Boleyn executed. So Anne’s daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth, had grounds for feeling some ambivalence toward her father. For all we know, she may have gotten the joke about Falstaff as a caricature of the aging Henry VIII–and may have felt some catharsis as a result.

    My article about some of these speculations is in the current Notes & Queries–

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