The activities in this guide address several aspects of Falstaff:
- The close relationship between text and music in Verdi’s setting of Boito’s libretto
- Similarity and differences in the character of Falstaff as depicted by Verdi and Boito and by Shakespeare
- Musical innovation in this late Verdi work
- Boito’s reworking of Shakespeare’s text and situations
- The opera as a unified work of art, involving a wide range of creative decisions by the composer, the librettist, and the artists of the Metropolitan Opera
Word of Honor: The Character of Falstaff in Verdi and Shakespeare
The guide is intended to cultivate students’ interest in Falstaff whether or not they have any prior acquaintance with opera. It includes activities for students with a wide range of musical backgrounds, seeking to encourage them to think about opera—and the performing arts in general—as a medium of entertainment and creative expression.
Falstaff is the third of Verdi’s operas based on Shakespeare, following the much earlier Macbeth and the immediately preceding Otello. Yet there are tremendous differences between this work and the other two. It isn’t just that Falstaff is a comic opera. It’s also that Shakespeare never wrote a play called Falstaff. Sir John Falstaff, that wise, witty rogue, is a secondary character in the two-part history play Henry IV.
He proved so popular with audiences that Shakespeare brought him back as a comic foil in one of several subplots in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Verdi’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, adapted that comedy’s structure for their version of Falstaff, but it was never their intention to musicalize Merry Wives. Their subject was Falstaff himself—a character they understood as a consistent presence across all three Shakespeare plays.
But how did these two 19th-century Italian artists see Falstaff? And what would Shakespeare have thought of the way they portrayed him? These are the central questions in this activity. In it, students will:
- become acquainted with Elizabethan English
- analyze two conflicting passages from Shakespeare that were both incorporated into Falstaff
- compare and contrast the meanings of these two passages
- study the music and text of a passage from Falstaff to determine which Shakespeare source was more influential
- imagine the Falstaff who might have emerged if Verdi and Boito had stressed their other Shakespeare source.