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The Story of 'Falstaff'

Alice Ford (Janice Watson, center) explains her plans to trick Falstaff to Meg Page (Immelda Drumm, left), Mistress Quickly (Anne-Marie Owens, far right) and Nanetta (Claire Ormshaw).
Alice Ford (Janice Watson, center) explains her plans to trick Falstaff to Meg Page (Immelda Drumm, left), Mistress Quickly (Anne-Marie Owens, far right) and Nanetta (Claire Ormshaw).

ACT ONE: The opera is set in Windsor in the early 15th Century, during the reign of Henry the 4th.

Sir John Falstaff is sitting at a table in the Garter Inn, with his scruffy companions Bardolfo and Pistola. They're knights who've all seen better days. Falstaff is putting two letters into envelopes when Dr. Caius enters and accuses the men of robbing him.

Nobody has the money to pay the bar bill, and Falstaff reveals his plan to improve their luck. His envelopes contain love letters to two wealthy women, Alice Ford and Meg Page. When he asks Bardolfo and Pistola to deliver the letters, the men refuse, citing ethical concerns. So Falstaff gives them to a messenger instead, then rails against his buddies and chases them from the inn.

In the next scene, Alice and her daughter Nanetta are in their garden talking to Meg and Mistress Quickly. When they discover they're holding identical letters from Falstaff, they decide to get even with him.

As they leave, Alice's husband, Ford, arrives with Caius, Fenton, Bardolfo, and Pistola. They all warn Ford about Falstaff's designs. When they're alone for a minute, Nannetta and Fenton, her secret lover, share a few stolen kisses. The other women return, with a plot to send Mistress Quickly to Falstaff to arrange a rendezvous with Alice. Meanwhile, Ford also has a scheme to get back at Falstaff. In the Act One finale, the men and women sing of their plots, determined to cut the fat knight down to size.

As ACT TWO opens, we're back at the Garter Inn, where Falstaff pretends to accept apologies from Bardolfo and Pistola. Mistress Quickly enters and assures Falstaff that both Alice and Meg return his affections. After arranging a meeting with Alice, Falstaff gives Mistress Quickly a puny tip, then prances and preens for everyone.

Ford enters, disguised as Master Brook. He says he's also in love with Alice, but she doesn't feel the same. Falstaff brags that he's all set to meet with Alice. Then he steps out to get himself ready. Ford is furious, and swears revenge. Pulling himself together when Falstaff returns, he and the fat knight then leave, arm in arm.

At Ford's house, Mistress Quickly tells Alice and Meg about her meeting with Falstaff. Just before Falstaff arrives, the women hide — all except for Alice, who sits strumming a lute. Falstaff begins to brag about his youth, when he was a handsome, slender thing. But he's cut short when Mistress Quickly returns to announce that Meg is coming. Falstaff jumps behind a screen to hide.

Meg arrives and announces that a very angry Ford is on the way. When Ford gets there, he and his men search the house and Falstaff hides in a basket of dirty laundry, but has a hard time breathing. Meg and Mistress Quickly try to muffle his gasps. Ford, hearing some sounds, knocks over the screen, only to find Fenton and Nanetta behind it, sneaking a kiss. Then everyone runs upstairs, where Alice orders her servants to dump the laundry basket into the Thames. Alice and her husband look out the window to see Falstaff ignominiously blubbering in the water.

ACT THREE opens with Falstaff-- where else?--but back at the Garter Inn, drinking. He meditates about his soggy adventure, his big belly and the joys wine provides, but his musing is brought to an end when Mistress Quickly arrives. She insists that Alice is still in love with him. And to prove it, she produces a note from Alice urging a midnight tryst in Windsor Park, under the big oak tree.

Then Mistress Quickly distracts Falstaff with a spooky tale of the Black Huntsman's ghost, who haunts Windsor Park. While she's regaling Falstaff, Alice, Ford, Meg, Caius, and Fenton sneak in. They concoct a plot to scare Falstaff by dressing up as spirits.

The final scene takes place in the moonlit Forest. Fenton is disguised as a monk, Nannetta as queen of the fairies, Meg a nymph, and Mistress Quickly a witch. But they all scatter when Falstaff comes tromping in, dressed as a hunter and wearing antlers.

Just as he greets Alice, Meg — the nymph — warns of approaching demons. Falstaff shudders and cowers, while Nanetta calls on the forest creatures. They come out, prodding, poking and pinching Falstaff, who finally is so undone he rolls around on the ground begging for mercy. Then he recognizes Bardolfo behind one of the masks. He's confused only for a second then comes out with a big, booming laugh. Falstaff may be a braggart and a cheat, but nobody can say he doesn't have a sense of humor.

Alice brings forward two brides and two grooms, all still in disguise. Before he quite realizes what he's doing, Ford marries off his daughter Nanetta to her lover Fenton. Alas, he's been tricked. But he gives his blessing nonetheless, and Falstaff leads the entire company in declaring: "Everything in the world is a joke" — bringing Verdi's last opera to a rousing end.

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