Comparing Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ and ‘Boito and Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’

THE CHALLENGE

In his book, The Pursuit of Italy (published by Allen Lane and Penguin, in 2011 and 2012 respectively), David Gilmour mentions the collaboration between Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito, on Otello (first performed in 1887) and Falstaff (first performed in 1893); and, concerning the latter, he comments (pages 273f):

‘Boito was so skilful in condensing Shakespeare and conflating several minor characters that he made the opera a far finer and funnier work than the original, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

But can this be true?  Is Falstaff  “finer and funnier”, indeed, than The Merry Wives of Windsor?

THE PLAY (1)

The Merry Wives has several plots and sub-plots.  Most of it is in prose.  Verse predominates, however, in Act 3 Scene 4, 4.4, 4.6 and 5.5.  Whereas the prose is very lively (as in other comedies, eg Much Ado About Nothing), and allows the distinctive personalities of the characters to emerge, some of the verse passages (those involving Fenton) are rather stiff and formal.  (One hypothesis is that the verse passages were “salvaged” from an earlier masque and antimasque.)

As the editor G R Hibbard writes (in his Introduction to the 1973 Penguin edition, page 36):

‘Ignoring the various underplots, one can discern two main strands in the play: the Wives’ revenge on Falstaff, carrying the business of Ford in disguise with it, and the matter of Anne Page and her three wooers, Slender, Caius, and Fenton.  In terms of the action, these two plots are kept carefully separate from one another right up to the very last scene, where they come together with a complex reciprocal effect on each other.’

THE OPERA

The libretto is based, more or less, on certain scenes in The Merry Wives, namely, 1.1, 1.3, 2.1, 2.2, 3.3, 4.4 and 5.5.  There are also borrowings from Henry IV Parts One and Two, notably Falstaff’s speech on honour from 1H4 Act 5 Sc 1 (placed in Act 1 Sc 1 of the opera).  The libretto is punctuated by translations and paraphrases of the Shakespearean texts.  Boito’s own text has many short sentences and many rhymes.

The libretto is (unsurprisingly) much shorter than the text of the play: it has six scenes whereas the play has twenty-three.   The action is streamlined: the second humiliation of Falstaff is omitted; the subplots are omitted too.  There are changes: Anne is the daughter (Nannetta) of the Fords rather than the Pages (and Master Page is left out); Anne rather than Mistress Quickly acts as the Queen of the Fairies, in the event; she has only two wooers – Fenton and Dr Cajus.  Whereas Anne and Fenton hardly appear together in the play – but succeed in getting married (in secret), in the last scene, the opera shows us them conducting a continual love affair.

Verdi’s music complements and enhances the libretto marvellously: it is rich, varied and dramatic.  The fugue finale is a master-stroke.

So the opera has a lot going for it.

THE PLAY (2)

How can the play stand up to a comparison with the opera, then?  The answer lies in the words that Shakespeare puts in the mouths of his characters (all of them), which have a music of their own.  Giorgio Melchiori, editor of the Arden 3rd edition of The Merry Wives writes in his Introduction (pages 4f) as follows:

‘Its uniqueness, ie the fact of being Shakespeare’s one and only ‘English comedy’ – though large sections of the plot and action derive from obvious Italian models – as well as his only ‘comedy of humours’, is achieved through a subtle gradation of linguistic distinctions in a play where ….individual nuances of social rank are established by the grammatical and syntactical usages of each speaker….In fact Merry Wives is not so much an ‘English comedy’ as ‘the Comedy of English’, or rather ‘the Comedy of Language’….The manipulation of language places Merry Wives side by side with Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Inevitably, some of the “nuances” are lost in translation or adaptation into another language.  The transposition of a passage from the play to the opera works is examined (briefly) below.

THE DUCKING SCENE (WIVES 3.3, FALSTAFF 2.2)

Significantly, the opera’s version of the scene that leads to Falstaff’s ducking (Act 2 Scene 2 – compare the play’s 3.3) ends with a climax – Falstaff is unceremoniously dumped out of the linen basket, out of the window and into the water.  Ford, moreover, is let into the wives’ plot against Falstaff at this point.  In the play, by contrast, Falstaff is disposed of, off-stage, and the arguments of the characters carry on without him.  Ford is left in ignorance – but he has to apologise to his wife for his behaviour and his suspicion of her.  (He only finds out the truth in 4.4.)  The scene ends quietly, with Ford inviting his friends to dinner.  Shakespeare’s climax – or rather dénouement – is left until the final scene.

The fun of the operatic scene is enhanced by four factors in the libretto, quite apart from Verdi’s music: the hurly-burly of the action, with lots of entrances and exits; in the middle of this, the on-stage courting and flirting of Anne and Fenton; the anti-climax provided by Ford discovering the young lovers, in hiding, rather than his wife and Falstaff; and (as already said) the dumping of Falstaff in the water, in full view of Ford and everybody.

Falstaff’s language constantly shows wit and invention, in The Merry Wives as in the Henry IV plays. There is a flavour of what he is capable of at the beginning of his dialogue with Meg Ford, in Act 3 Scene 3, and Boito borrows extensively from it, here as elsewhere.  Hence:

Falstaff: Have I caught thee, my heavenly jewel? (1) Why, now let me die, for I have lived long enough. (2) This is the period of my ambition. (3) O this blessed hour! (4)

Mistress Ford: O sweet Sir John! (5)

Falstaff: Mistress Ford, I cannot cog, I cannot prate, Mistress Ford. (6) Now I shall sin in my wish (7): I would thy husband were dead. (8) I’ll speak it before the best lord, I would make thee my lady. (9)

Mistress Ford: I your lady, Sir John?  Alas, I should be a pitiful lady. (10)

Falstaff: Let the court of France show me such another. (11) I see how thine eye would emulate the diamond. (12) Thou hast the right arched beauty of the brow that becomes the ship-tire, the tire-valiant, or any tire of Venetian admittance.

Mistress Ford: A plain kerchief, Sir John. (13) My brows become nothing else, nor that well neither.

Falstaff: Thou art a tyrant to do so.  Thou wouldst make an absolute courtier, and the firm fixture of thy foot would give an excellent motion to thy gait in a semi-circled farthingale. (14) I see what thou wert if Fortune, thy foe, were – not Nature – thy friend.  Come, thou canst not hide it.

Mistress Ford: Believe me, there’s no such thing in me.

The corresponding dialogue in the libretto closely follows the above (compare the numbers in brackets):

Falstaff:

Alfin t’ho colto, raggiante fior, t’ho colto! (1)

(catches her round the waist; Alice stops playing the lute, gets up, and places it on the table)

Ed or potrò morir felice. (2)

Avrò vissuto molto, (3)

Dopo quest’ora di beato amor. (4)

Alice Ford:

O soave Sir John! (5)

Falstaff:

Mia bella Alice!

Non so far lo svenevole,

Né lusingar, né usar frase fiorita, (6)

Ma dirò tosto un mio pensier colpevole. (7)

Alice Ford:

Cioè?

Falstaff:

Cioè: Vorrei che Mastro Ford passasse a miglior vita1… (8)

Alice Ford:

Perchè?

Falstaff:

Perchè?  Lo chiedi?

Saresti la mia Lady (9)

E Falstaff il tuo Lord!

Alice Ford:

Povera Lady inver! (10)

Falstaff:

Degna d’un Re. (11)

T’immagino fregiata del mio stemma2,

Mostrar fra gemma e gemma

La pompa del tuo sen3

Nell’iri ardente a mobile dei rai dell’adamante4. (12)

Col picciol pie’ nel nobile cerchio d’un guardinfante5 (14)

Risplenderai più fulgida d’un ampio arcobalen6.

Alice Ford:

Ogni più bel gioiel7 mi nuoce

E spregio il finto idolo d’or.

Mi basta un vel8 (13) legato in croce,

Un fregio al cinto e in testa un fior.

(places a flower in her hair)

 

NOTES

While I do not intend to try to translate all the Italian, I shall comment on a few words and phrases.

1 ‘passasse a miglior vita’ = ‘would pass on to a better life’ = ‘die’ (as in the English).

2 ‘stemma’ = ‘coat of arms’: Falstaff imagines Alice Ford adorned with his arms.

3 ‘sen(o): Falstaff talks of the splendour of her bosom.

4 ‘adamante’ = diamond.

5 ‘guardinfante’ = ‘farthingale’ (skirt with hoops of whalebone).

6 ‘arcobalen(o)’ = ‘rainbow’: Falstaff tells Alice that she will shine more brightly than a rainbow.

7 ‘goiel(lo)’ = ‘jewel’, picking up on Falstaff’s use of the word in the first line above.

8 ‘vel(o)’ – ‘veil’: the opera’s Alice says that a veil suffices for her, while the play’s Alice says that she is satisfied with a ‘plain kerchief’.

CONCLUSION

The opera has the advantages conferred by Boito’s clever use of Shakespearean passages and invention of snappy, lively dialogue of his own, combined with Verdi’s dramatic and varied music, which suits all occasions.  Boito preserves the two main plots and the happy endings, discarding the minor matters.  Moreover, he conveys the delight Anne and Fenton share when in one another’s company, shedding the darker tones of the original.

The play, on the other hand displays Shakespeare’s wit, at length, and his ability to bring out character through speech.

In a comparison between the two media (drama and opera), we can only say that it is a close-run thing.

David R Harries

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