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The Warbling Wives of Windsor

Dateline: 19th February, 2006

The RSC's forthcoming Merry Wives The Musical, opening in Stratford this December, is a reminder that The Merry Wives of Windsor has inspired more composers and librettists than any other Shakespeare comedy; there have been at least eleven musical adaptations.

Details of the very first Merry Wives opera, M. Papavoine's Le Vieax Coquet, ou les Deux Amies (1761), are lost in the mists of time. Although the work soon disappeared, it is remarkable that a foreign composer was setting one of Shakespeare's minor plays long before Bardolatry had taken root in England.

Salieri's Falstaff DVD cover

The composer of the first successful Merry Wives opera was, rather surprisingly, the unjustly maligned Antonio Salieri (1750-1825). Contrary to the impression given in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Mozart and Salieri and Peter Shaeffer's play Amadeus, Salieri was neither the murderer of Mozart nor a talentless hack. In recent years there has been a revival of interest in his work. Falstaff, ossia le tre burle (1799), with a libretto by Carlo Prospero Defranceschi, has made the most dramatic comeback of all Salieri's operas. Recorded twice, broadcast by the BBC and now available on DVD, the work is more popular now than it has been at any time since its premiere in Vienna. As the title - Falstaff, or the three pranks - indicates, the opera concentrates on the wives' practical jokes. The characters of Anne Page and Fenton are omitted, the Pages become Mr and Mrs Slender and Mistress Ford acquires a maid called Betty. She and Mrs Slender react to Falstaff's love letters by singing the duet "La stessa, la stessissima", which so appealed to Beethoven he later used it as the basis for a set of variations. The opera also contains a scene in which Mistress Ford disguises herself as a German girl speaking a mixture of German and Italian!

Michael Balfe

Michael Balfe (1808-1870) was one of the most successful composers of the nineteenth century, but he is now remembered only for the song "Come in to the Garden Maud" and his opera The Bohemian Girl (1843), a favourite with touring and amateur companies well into the 1930s. He was also a talented baritone and sang the role of Papageno in the first London performance of The Magic Flute. But Balfe's ambition was to establish English opera as a serious art form to rival its continental counterparts, and he made an heroic but ultimately doomed attempt to wean English audiences off ballad opera and onto through-sung works. Falstaff (1838) boasted a phenomenal cast including Luigi Leblanche, Guilia Grisi and Giovanni Rubini, all of whom had created principal roles in Bellini's I Puritani only three years earlier, but despite an enthusiastic reception the work soon forgotten. It would take another century for English opera to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with.

CD cover of Nikolai's Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor

The next composer to enter the lists was Germany's Otto Nicolai (1810-1849). The composer of five operas, four of them in Italian, he is best remembered for Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor (1849). Still a cornerstone of the operatic repertory in German-speaking countries, this effervescent work is rarely performed in Britain (probably because it has been so totally eclipsed by Verdi's Falstaff). Librettist Salomon Hermann Mosenthal changed some of the names: Ford becomes Fluth, Page Reich and Slender Spärlich. Few librettists have been able to resist the challenge of "improving" on the play's multiple elopement scene and Mosenthal was no exception - Spärlich and Caius, both disguised as fairies, run off together in the belief that each has finally got his hands on Anne Page…

Adolphe-Charles Adam (1803-1856), best known as the composer of the ballet Giselle, also tried his hand at a Merry Wives opera. His one-act Falstaff (1856) sank without trace, and for almost forty years Shakespeare's early comedy was neglected by composers who were more interested in the operatic potential of his tragedies.

Verdi's Falstaff DVD cover

The most notable of them was, of course, Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901). He had already made successful operatic versions of Macbeth and Othello, but the character of Shakespeare's fat knight had fascinated him for years. Although Falstaff (1893) is universally agreed to be the most musically distinguished of all the Merry Wives operas, the composer and his librettist Arrigo Boito went even further than their predecessors in altering Shakespeare's play. It is difficult to agree with Charles Osborne's statement in The Complete Operas of Verdi that the work is a vast improvement on Shakespeare's "ploddingly repetitive pot-boiler". Shallow and Slender are omitted, leaving Dr Caius to complain - not very credibly - to Falstaff. Mr Page has also disappeared and Nannetta (Anne) is now the daughter of Mr and Mrs Ford, a rather insensitive change since the play gives the impression that the couple's childless state may be a one of the reasons for their unhappy marriage. And there is something downright clumsy about the way in which Verdi's Ford searches the buck-basket before Falstaff hides in it… Falstaff's celebrated "honour" aria, borrowed from 1 Henry IV, also sounds a little incongruous coming from the very different Falstaff of Merry Wives. It goes without saying that the elopement scene did not escape alteration, and in this version Dr Caius' blushing bride turns out to be the red-faced Bardolph! But after a rather slow start - Italian audiences in particular took some time to warm to the work - Falstaff became one of the world's most popular and frequently-performed operas, a position it still holds today.

Andrew Shore as Falstaff in ENO's Edwardian Sir John in Love

Twenty years after the premiere of Verdi's Falstaff Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was employed as music director to Sir Frank Benson's company at Stratford-upon-Avon. The experience inspired him to write a Shakespeare opera, but it was not until 1929 that Sir John in Love received its premiere. The composer wrote his own libretto and, for the first time, a Merry Wives opera remained remarkably faithful to the play. The only major changes are that Anne herself reveals her marriage plans to the Host of the Garter, Falstaff's escape disguised as the fat woman of Brentford is omitted, and the newly-wed Anne and Fenton make their entrance on a cart decorated with flowers (cue for a setting of Ben Jonson's "See the chariot is at hand"). Songs by Shakespeare's contemporaries Marlowe and Middleton are cleverly incorporated into the opera. Sir John in Love has also made a comeback in recent years - it has been recorded twice and a new production by English National Opera opens next month at the London Coliseum.

Why has The Merry Wives of Windsor inspired composers as diverse as Salieri, Nicolai, Verdi and Vaughan Williams? The play itself is often dismissed as an untypical, almost farcical work, greatly inferior to mature comedies such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night. It contains no memorable song lyrics and the only character who actually sings, Mistress Quickly, is immediately silenced by her employer Dr Caius ("Vat is you sing? I do not like dese toys"). Yet there is something about the play's English setting, colourful characters and non-stop action that seems to cry out for musical accompaniment. Merry Wives has been updated with surprising success (as those who remember the RSC's 1950s version can testify) and over the years folk, jazz and rock music have been used to great effect. It will be interesting to see what composer Paul Englishby and lyricist Ranjit Bolt come up with for Gregory Doran's production of Merry Wives The Musical.

J.D. Atkinson

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©Peter Lathan 2006