Of all the comic creations of William Shakespeare, the fat knight Sir John Falstaff ranks highest in popularity. In Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” history plays, Sir John appears as the Lord of Misrule, a bad but endearing companion to the young prince Hal. In Shakespeare’s comedy “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” supposedly written at the personal request of Queen Elizabeth the First, Sir John’s amatory exploits are held up to ridicule.
Now, in addition to comic plays, there are such thing as comic operas, and, in the 18th century, two of Mozart’s contemporaries, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf and Antonio Salieri, had a go at adapting “The Merry Wives of Windsor” into operas. In the 19th century, the German composer and conductor Otto Nicolai scored a big hit with his “Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor,” which proved the most successful of all Falstaff operas to date, and remains a favorite to this day.
But pride of place must be reserved for the Falstaff opera that premiered on today’s date in 1893, at the La Scala opera in Milan. This “Falstaff” was the last opera written by Giuseppe Verdi, famous for his blood and thunder melodramas and tragic operas. Approaching eighty, Verdi proved surprisingly adept at comedy, setting the nimble libretto crafted by Arrigo Boito to music as sly and quick-witted as the character Shakespeare created some three hundred years earlier.