VERDI’S 200th ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION: Falstaff in Victoria, Canada

Verdi: Falstaff

FalstaffFalstaff: 100th Productionlogo

Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Arrigo Boito

October 17, 19, 23, 25, 2013, at 8 pm
Matinée October 27 at 2:30 pm

In Italian with English Surtitle

Boito and VerdiMusic by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Arrigo Boito

October 17, 19, 23, 25, 2013, at 8 pm
Matinée October 27 at 2:30 pm

In Italian with English Surtitles


Welcome to POV’s 100th production! We’re coming full circle: our first production, in 1980, was The Merry Wives of Windsor, Otto Nicolai’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, featuring that incorrigible scoundrel, Sir John Falstaff. We’re thrilled to reconnect with Falstaff, this time with Verdi’s version, an altogether masterful interpretation that many believe transcends Shakespeare.

How better to mark Verdi’s bicentennial than with the old man’s glorious parting shot – the greatest comedy in the Italian repertoire. Here is Verdi at the top of his game. About to turn 80, he gave us his last laugh – his first comedy in a half century, written for the sheer joy of it – a rich, layered feast about another old man who faces the indignities of age with irrepressible good humour.

Shakespeare may have invented the character of Sir John Falstaff, but the portly, hard-drinking, womanizing scoundrel is the perfect fit for opera: he lives life large.

Falstaff is a prodigious celebration of laughter and human resilience, with a miraculous score and a dizzying wealth of melody – it is in every way monumental.

Victor Maurel as Falstaff - 1893

Cast and Creative Team

Photos, bios, reviews, audio, and video

With the Victoria Symphony, the Pacific Opera Chorus, and Members of the Pacific Dance Centre, Wendy Vernon, Director

Synopsis of Falstaff


Act One


Costume for Falstaff - 1893Sir John Falstaff sits drinking with his servants Bardolfo and Pistolo. In bursts Dr. Caius, accusing the men of robbing him while he was drunk. Falstaff dismisses the accusations and Caius storms out. Unable to pay his large bill at the Inn, Falstaff devises a plan: he will seduce two local matrons in order to gain access to their husbands’ money. When Bardolfo and Pistola claim that honour prevents them from carrying Sir John’s letters to the ladies, Falstaff dispatches a page instead, and throws his henchmen out.


Alice Ford and Meg Page amuse themselves comparing identical letters received from Sir John Falstaff. Meanwhile, in another part of the garden, Bardolfo and Pistola inform Alice’s jealous husband of Falstaff’s plot. All devise revenge on Falstaff: aging busybody Mistress Quickly will tell Falstaff that Alice is receptive to his advances, while Falstaff’s own servants will introduce Ford to the old knight under an assumed name. In the midst of this commotion, the Fords’ daughter Nannetta and her lover Fenton steal a few precious moments together.

Act Two


Mistress Quickly brings a message to Falstaff that Alice will meet him in the afternoon when her husband is always away. She adds that both ladies are pining for him, and that neither knows of the other’s letter. Bardolfo then brings in Ford, introducing him to Falstaff as Mr. Brook, who spins a tale of long-unrequited love for Alice, pleading with the old knight for assistance in winning her affections. Falstaff replies that nothing could be easier – he already has an assignation with her. The jealous Ford struggles to maintain composure.


The ladies are preparing for Falstaff’s visit. Nannetta tearfully reveals that her father insists she marry Doctor Caius; Alice reassures her daughter. Falstaff arrives and begins his seduction of Alice, but Meg Page rushes in to warn the pair that Ford is approaching. They hide Falstaff behind a screen. Ford arrives with the other men; they begin searching for Falstaff in a large laundry basket. As they look elsewhere, the ladies bundle Falstaff into the basket. The men pull aside the screen only to discover Nannetta and Fenton in an embrace; Alice orders her servants to tip the basket (with Falstaff inside) into the Thames.

Act Three


Falstaff soothes his injured pride over a glass of wine. Mistress Quickly arrives and assures him that Alice was an innocent in the events at Ford’s house, and that he should appear at “haunted” Windsor Park at midnight, dressed as Herne the Hunter. The others, including Ford (who has been admitted into the conspiracy), plan to dress as goblins, witches, and fairies. Ford secretly promises Caius that he will wed Nannetta that night, but Quickly overhears their scheming.


Alice instructs Fenton to wear a costume identical to that prescribed by Ford for Caius. They all hide as Falstaff approaches. Alice appears, declaring her love for the old knight, but then runs away. Witches and fairies appear, with Nannetta as the fairy queen. They pinch and poke the terrified Falstaff, demanding that he abandon his dissolute ways. He recognizes Bardolfo, and, realizing he has been successfully tricked, points out that he is still the source of wit in others.

Ford announces the marriage of the Queen of the Fairies, but two similarly attired couples come forward, so a double wedding is performed. Unveiling reveals that Caius has been married to Bardolfo, and Nannetta to Fenton. Ford accepts this with good grace: he who laughs last, laughs best.

Robert Holliston


Verdi’s Last Laugh – The Miracle of Falstaff

One of the great lost possibilities of opera is that, after composing two tragedies based on Shakespeare – Macbeth and Otello – Verdi never completed his dreamed-of King Lear. But in his 80th year he gave us the unexpected miracle of Falstaff.

The larger-than-life Sir John Falstaff, often called the Homer Simpson of his time, is an aging hellraiser with an undiminished appetite for women, food, booze, and life.

When his bar bill gets out of hand, Sir John decides to fix the problem by seducing two wealthy married women. His approach is anything but subtle: he sends them identical love letters. The women of course see right through him and decide to have some fun. Merry mix-ups, disguises, farce, and romance ensue as the townspeople of Windsor concoct an elaborate hoax to foil Sir John’s gold-digging schemes, and our hero ends up in a laundry hamper, a river, and a forest (with a pair of horns on his head).

The ensemble cast includes an assortment of nutbars – a jealous husband / overbearing father, a hot-headed doctor, Falstaff’s ne’er-do-well cronies – as well as a pair of star-crossed lovers and a trio of mischievous and formidable women.

Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, who had written the libretto for Otello, scrounged ingredients from four of Shakespeare’s plays to concoct this feast of an opera.

Falstaff appeared in three of Shakespeare’s plays – Henry IV, part 1, Henry IV, part 2, and The Merry Wives of Windsor – and his death is reported in Henry V. For their opera, Verdi and Boito took much of the plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor and some of Falstaff’s lines from the two Henry IV plays. The opera ends with a happy adaptation from As You Like It: the cynical speech All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players becomes, in the hands of Verdi and Boito, a joyous fugue in praise of laughter: All the world’s a joke and man is born a clown … he laughs best who has the last laugh! One critic called this the funniest, most astonishing and exhilarating fugue ever written for voices.

The problem in Falstaff, if there can be said to be one, is that it has so many tunes. The melodies tumble over one another, one gorgeous phrase after another. Each, in other hands, would be repeated and expanded into a full-fledged aria. Capturing Falstaff‘s melodies is like trying to catch fireflies.

As POV patron Barbara Wollman observed:

It took me a few listenings (decades ago) to understand Falstaff – the music whizzed by at such a pace that by the time I got my mind around one set of measures I had missed a dozen more … in contemporary terms, the “tunes” in Falstaff are analogous to a cascade of tweets (twitter messages), as opposed to the formal letter (as an analogy to previous operas).

The writing of Falstaff proceeded in fits and starts between 1889 and 1892. Despite concerns about his age and health, Verdi found the project irresistible, writing to Boito in July 1889, What joy! To be able to say to the public: We are still here!! Make way for us!!

They worked on the opera in secret, giving it the code name Pancione (Big Belly) and discussing their progress in terms of Pancione’s mood and health. Verdi wrote in June 1891:

Pancione is on the road that leads to madness. There are days when he doesn’t move, sleeps, and is in a bad mood. Other times he shouts, runs, jumps, rages like the devil … if he persists, I’ll put a muzzle and a straitjacket on him.

To which Boito sent an exuberant response:

Hurrah! Let him have his way, let him run, he will break all the windows and all the furniture in your room; never mind, you will buy others…let everything be turned topsy-turvy! …What pandemonium!! But pandemonium as bright as the sun and as dizzying as a house full of lunatics!

In February 1893, that pandemonium was unleashed in a triumphant première at La Scala. Amid the ovations, Verdi insisted that Boito should join him on stage – for Falstaff was the marvellous result of an extraordinary partnership, and the old rogue had finally found his ideal place – in an opera.

As poet W.H. Auden said,

Even in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff has not and could not have found his true home because Shakespeare was only a poet. For that he was to wait nearly two hundred years till Verdi wrote his last opera. Falstaff is not the only case of a character whose true home is the world of music; others are Tristan, Isolde and Don Giovanni.

Verdi’s last opera – his last laugh – is an absolute joy – monumental and exhilarating.

The renowned opera director, lecturer and writer Thomson Smillie said of the old man’s final work:

Wagner, Verdi’s great contemporary and rival, had ended his career with a profound spiritual statement, Parsifal, whose depths we are still struggling to plumb. Verdi dismisses the human condition as mere folly. No one is qualified to say which is the truer philosophy or the more appropriate statement for a last artistic will and testament, but there is no doubting which is the more endearing.

Maureen Woodall

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