Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor
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The Merry Wives of Windsor (opera) - Wikipedia
But Vaughn Williams' statement is also startling for what it omits. He avoids mention of Elgar's "symphonic study" Falstaff, composed in , and of another opera he much admired: Otto Nicolai's Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, first performed in That so many composers should be drawn to Falstaff is unsurprising. Music asserts the vitality of experience that the character effectively embodies. Falstaff is literature's great survivor, a fat everyman who gleefully clings to life, despite its often appalling cruelties.
Countless theatregoers have claimed he seems to have an existence of his own beyond the plays in which we find him, and that he seems malleably adaptable to any situation in which he can be placed.
Verdi, working on his opera, famously remarked that "fat belly" was running away with the score, effectively dictating the creative process. The Falstaff of Henry IV hangs out in Eastcheap taverns with Prince Hal, feigns death on the battlefield and then resurrects himself once the danger is over.
Yet he also has tragic potential in his growing awareness of his bodily decline and the approach of mortality. The Falstaff of Merry Wives lacks such self-knowledge. Equally crucial is the shift in social context between the plays, which ultimately dictated a shifting response from public, critics and musicians. Henry IV places Falstaff in the context of aristocratic and proletarian reactions to war and political convulsion.
Merry Wives presents him as a libidinous aristocrat pitting his wits against the sexual conservativism of an emerging bourgeoisie.
Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor
Our own, politically tormented age should prefer Henry IV, while Merry Wives was a favourite play of the capitalist 19th century. Nicolai's opera ruthlessly rewrites Merry Wives along bourgeois lines by dispensing with the play's proletariat: Falstaff's low-life cronies are absent. Intriguingly, at the end of his opera, bourgeois values suddenly lurch towards feminism.
Nicolai closes with an ensemble for the women, while the men - Falstaff included - are silenced. The contrast between this and the all-embracing fugue that ends Verdi's Falstaff could not be more pronounced. Verdi's opera is the work of a man who was, like Falstaff himself, a survivor, capable of looking back on a difficult life with humour and sadness.