Falstaff, ossia le tre burle, 1799)
Opera comica in two acts
Music by Antonio Salieri
Libretto by Carlo Prospero Defranceschi, after The Merry Wives of Windsor
English translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray

The Deanery garden, July 2003
Theatre Royal Bath, March 2004


Mrs Alice Ford Amanda Pitt
Mrs Slender, friend of Mrs Ford
Joanne Thomas
Mr Ford Mark Wilde
Mr Slender Adam Green
Sir John Falstaff Mark Saberton
Betty, servant to Mrs Ford Ilona Domnich
Bardolfo, servant to Falstaff Nicholas Merryweather
Conductor Murray Hipkin
Assistant director Harry Fehr
Director Jeremy Gray
Chorus Jennifer French, Anne Hichens, Annabel Molyneaux, Harriet Molyneaux, Jo Parton, Robyn Parton, Helen Semple, Alan Poppleton, Andrew Hichens, Mike Probert, Damian Riddle

On-stage band Three Pressed Men



Act I
Sir John Falstaff, a retired and corpulent soldier, gatecrashes a party held by Mrs and Mrs Slender at their home in Windsor. Heavily in debt, he decides to woo Mrs Slender and her friend Mrs Ford, as a route to their husbands’ wallets. From his room at the Capricorn Inn, he sends them identical love letters, causing them to plot revenge for his affrontery. Mr Ford returns from a short absence, and his suspicions about his wife’s fidelity are fuelled by the revelations of Falstaff’s servant, Bardolph.

Falstaff is visited first by Mrs Ford, disguised as a German woman, and then by Mr Ford, disguised as Mr Brook. Falstaff agrees to visit Mrs Ford when her husband is out; Ford plots to catch them in flagrante.

At the Ford’s house, the wives prepare the first trick on Falstaff. Falstaff’s overtures to Mrs Ford are interrupted by Betty, who pretends that Ford is at the door. Falstaff is bundled into a laundry basket. Just as the servants are summoned to take the basket away and tip its contents into the Thames, Ford indeed returns, and orders his soldiers to search the house. Nevertheless the basket is successfully removed, and everyone mocks Ford for his unjustified jealousy.

Act II
The women, fired by success, plan more tricks on Falstaff. Betty visits Falstaff (sodden, and less enthusiastic) to set up another assignation with Mrs Ford. Again ‘Mr Brook’ learns of the plan directly from Falstaff, and hears how he was fooled by the laundry basket.

Once again, Falstaff’s attempts to woo Mrs Ford are interrupted by the imminent return of the angry husband. For their second trick, the women disguise him as the cook’s old aunt, a woman whom Ford hates with vehemence. When Ford and his gang arrive, they are sure Falstaff must be again hiding in the basket. When it is revealed to be empty, Ford takes it out on the ‘cook’s aunt’ and beats ‘her’ out of the house. The wives decide enough is enough, and go off to reveal their games to their husbands.

Falstaff is again visited by ‘Mr Brook’ and the ‘German lady’ who set up the third trick: he is to dress up as the mythical Herne the Hunter, complete with horns, and meet Mrs Ford at Herne’s Oak in the Forest of Windsor at midnight. The wives meet him there and indulge his flattery until they run away and desert him. Scared, he imagines he is bewitched. Mrs Ford appears as the Queen of the Fairies; her entourage mercilessly tease and torment Falstaff, before revealing their true identities and extracting the promise from Falstaff that he will err ‘no more’


‘Sir John in Love’


‘Sir John in Love’

To those familiar with the richly textured virtuosity and frantic pacing of Verdi’s operatic swansong Falstaff, or the colourful ebullience of Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, the clear and elegant music of Salieri’s opera may at first seem a surprising idiom for Shakespeare’s corpulent hero. But it is hardly surprising that the classical period should have seized on the potential of ‘Sir John in love’ as a theme for opera buffa. With its bold and extravagant hero, themes of love, deception, jealousy and disguise, The Merry Wives of Windsor, itself anchored in the commedia del ’arte, transposes easily onto the musical stage, and fits effortlessly into a well established comic operatic tradition. Indeed those who become familiar with Salieri’s work may well find a deepening affection for a treatment which is deft and brilliantly characterised. As Volkmar Braunbehrens has said in the New Penguin Opera Guide, Falstaff is ‘unostentatious and full of subtle nuances, the music breathes a mellow wisdom, whilst remaining wholly within the 18th century tradition’; and the Shakespeare scholar Giorgio Melchiori deems Falstaff’s Act I Cavatina Nell’impero di Cupido (‘In the halls of Cupid’s empire’) ‘surely one of the best musical portraits of Falstaff ever achieved in opera.’

It is not known whether one of the early German Singspiel versions of Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, by Peter Ritter (Mannheim, 1794) and by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (Oels, 1796), was known to Salieri or his librettist, although bowdlerised versions of the play of The Merry Wives had been performed in Vienna. Having worked with some of the greatest librettists of his day, including Beaumarchais, Goldoni, da Ponte and Casti, Salieri turned for what was possibly his thirty-seventh opera to Carlo Prospero Defranceschi, a little-known figure active in Prague and Vienna, who later went on to provide two further libretti for Salieri. His skilful Italian adaptation from Shakespeare proves that he was well equal to the task, and the collaboration resulted in one of Salieri’s happiest and most creative works, slightly old-fashioned perhaps for the very end of the century, but a not unworthy successor to the da Ponte operas of Mozart (and, it might be mentioned, da Ponte’s superb 1786 adaptation of The Comedy of Errors – Gli Equivoci­ – with music by Stephen Storace, which Bampton Classical Opera performed in 2000-1).

As later librettists were also to find, the Merry Wives has too many characters to work in a musical version, and the linguistic wit of the text could barely be expected to survive when translated and sung. As Defranceschi’s subtitle I tre burle indicates, his focus is on the three deceptions which the women play on their hapless victim. However, around this comic yet poignant development with its traditional buffa intrigues and disguises, is woven the more serious thread of Mr Ford and his darkly brooding jealousy, a tenor role which is given especial weight and which undoubtedly parallels Count Almaviva in Figaro. The libretto keeps fairly close to the plot and chronology of The Merry Wives, with some recitatives quoted almost verbatim, but dispenses with Falstaff’s ramshackle retinue (only Bardolph is retained to act as his manservant, whilst the name Slender is unaccountably transferred to Mr and Mrs Page). More significantly, the romantic interest of the young lovers Anne Ford and Fenton is cut; Mistress Quickly is also lost, but is reborn as Betty, a conspiratorial Despina-like maid, whilst some of Quickly’s material is transposed to Mrs Ford herself, notably the Queen of the Fairies disguise in the finale. Thus only five major and two minor characters are needed to plot the unbouncing of fat knight, Falstaff.

These characters are depicted with charming and effective characterisation by both librettist and composer. In order to give him especial prominence, we are introduced to Mr Ford somewhat later than the other characters appearing in the brilliantly lively opening (paralleled by the delayed entry of Laura, the comparably serious figure in The Two Barons). Ford’s music is both heroic and lyric, and it is he, as much as Falstaff, who becomes the victim of the women’s playful moral education. His three arias, especially the superbly Mozartian Or degli affanni i palpiti (‘Now I’ve an understanding’) with clarinet obbligato, are powerful and expressive; each appears immediately after one by Falstaff so that the complex but always oblique relationship between them is brought into particular focus. In marked contrast to his self-induced and yet very human bitterness, his wife is depicted as the playful, though surely faithful, manipulator, who hatches plots with alacrity and disguises herself with panache in order to torment Falstaff and, through him, her husband. The Slenders provide another contrast: Mrs Slender is established with a fiery and indignant character through her opening revenge aria, whilst her husband exudes sound and sober middle-class values, amused, mellow and wise. Falstaff is presented with wit and bombast – no drunken sot, his naïve pursuit of respectable and middle-aged women arises not from lust, but from a simple need for cash. Whilst his servant Bardolph may complain of his incorrigible vices, Falstaff is certainly no basely immoral Don Juan, but simply a man who has been too long used to having his own way – a coward, but not a sinner.

Significant scenes are interpolated into the Shakespearian framework and others are expanded, always to superb effect. The curtain-raising scene takes place at a party and dance hosted by the Slenders; Falstaff appears as a genial but unsettling gatecrasher, and is thus provided with the opportunity (denied him by Shakespeare) to eye-up and flirt with the local wives of the town. Later in the first act, the quarrelsome encounter between the Fords (Merry Wives, II, 1) is expanded into a sophisticated quartet of Mozartian intensity : the individual strands of character are balanced and opposed as the two couples clash and collude in one of those simultaneous maelstroms of emotion which are unique to the operatic art.

For another interpolation, Defranceschi invented a brilliant equivalent to the linguistic wordplay and racial banter of Shakespeare, since Dr Caius’ ‘franglais’ and Evans’ garbled Welsh, as well as the Latin lesson given to Master William find no direct place in this slimmed down libretto. As a replacement the librettist has Mrs Ford adopt German disguise in order to mock-seduce Falstaff, a scene which must have delighted the German-speaking audiences at the opera’s Vienna première, well aware of the ongoing battle between the German and Italian traditions of opera.

The dramatic and musical parallels with Mozart’s 1786 Le Nozze di Figaro make fascinating study. Salieri’s overture, like Mozart’s , is in D major and, if more rustic, reverses Mozart’s cascading scales into energetic ascending lines. Decorative and tuneful, the opening scene is evidently influenced by Mozart’s dance-scenes in Figaro (Act III finale) and Don Giovanni, and whilst the on-stage band plays courtly minuets, the small-talk, social niceties and backbiting asides are expressed with especial acuity. The second act scene where Falstaff has to interrupt his wooing of Mrs Ford and dresses up in women’s clothing in order to escape the unexpected arrival of Ford makes clear reference to Cherubino’s plight in the Countess’s bedroom: the breathless and tiny allegro duet between Falstaff and Mrs Ford, as well as the subsequent trio with Mrs Slender, both suggest the frantic duet which precedes Cherubino’s jump for freedom. The standoff between the Fords, as he suspects her of hiding her lover in a laundry basket, likewise continues the theme of the Count’s search for Cherubino although, unlike her aristocratic counterpart, Mrs Ford is well aware of the ploy and makes her ‘confession’ with loaded sarcasm before opening the empty basket. The Act II finale set, like the ending of Figaro, amongst the trees at night, combines rustic levity with great poignancy and an awareness of the transformations which only the nocturnal mystery of nature can bring about: its themes of deception, taunting and repentance are richly reminiscent of Da Ponte and Mozart. The Fords express their reconciliation and spiritual growth in a duet of exquisite simplicity, and Falstaff’s bombast is gradually suppressed as he learns the painful lesson of self-awareness.

Salieri’s opera was premièred at the Kärtnerthor Theater on 3 January 1799, and appeared later the same year in Dresden and Berlin. Although it was not an immediate success, it attracted the attention of Beethoven who composed in the same year a spirited set of piano variations on the brilliant duet ‘La stessa, la stessissima’ sung by the Merry Wives on receipt of two identical love letters from Falstaff. The opera was dropped from the repertory of the court theatre in 1802, after only 26 performances. Its modern revival began with the Hungaroton recording of 1985; since then productions have taken place in Italy, France, Germany and America.

In a brilliant and extended Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff, published in 1777, Maurice Morgan wrote: ‘if Sir John Falstaff had possessed any of that Cardinal quality, Prudence, alike the guardian of virtue and the protector of vice; if he had considered his wit not as principal but accessory only; if he had spurred and rode the world with his wit instead of suffering the world, boys and all, to ride with him; - he might, without any other essential change, have been the admiration and not the jest of mankind’. The emphatic reiteration of ‘no more’ which Defranceschi and Salieri give to Falstaff in the closing pages must suggest hope of repentance and reform; mocked and derided to the very end, Falstaff becomes a new being in the midnight shadows cast by Herne’s Oak in Windsor Forest.


‘Remember kindly Salieri’s shade’
John A Rice


‘Remember kindly Salieri’s shade’

“The music of this opera, as always with Salieri, is outstanding: its wealth of ideas and its perfection of declamation put it on the same level as Mozart’s. My friend, if I could compose one such opera, it would make my life a success!” Thus the young E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote of Axur, re d’Ormus after a performance in Königsberg in 1795. He was not alone in his admiration. Salieri’s operas were performed and applauded all over Europe during the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. “I shed tears ten times; it was too strong for me”, wrote the poet Heinrich von Gerstenberg after hearing Salieri’s early serious opera Armida in Hamburg in 1776. In London the Morning Post and Daily Advertiser welcomed La scuola de’ gelosi: “The whole together is a masterly composition, and does great honour to Salieri, whose reputation as a composer must rise infinitely in the musical world, from this very pleasing specimen of his abilities.”

To what in Salieri’s operas did audiences respond so enthusiastically? What led his patron, Emperor Joseph II, to predict that he alone would be able to replace Gluck? And why are works that won such praise in their own time so little known today?

To some extent, Salieri’s operas have suffered from the same tendency that has kept all but a handful of eighteenth-century composers out of the repertory. The first half of the 400-year history of the genre is known to today’s opera-going public almost entirely through the works of Monteverdi, Handel and Mozart. A few celebrated works by other composers have broken through this repertorial hegemony. But Salieri is only one of many fine opera composers of the classical period whose works are today almost completely unknown to opera-lovers.

Of 35 operas by Salieri that reached the stage between 1770 and 1804 only five have been made available on CD. That may seem shamefully few, but when compared to the number of operas by Giuseppe Sarti, Vicente Martín y Soler, and Florian Gassmann that can be heard today, Salieri has actually been quite well served by the performers and recording companies.

Richard Armbrusterm a young German scholar working in Vienna, has made interesting discoveries about several of Salieri’s operas, including the late opera buffa Falstaff. The plot of Falstaff has much in common with that of Mozart’s Figaro. Both operas revolve around a faithful wife (Countess Almaviva in the case of Figaro, Mistress Ford in the Falstaff) and a jealous husband (Count Almaviva/Ford) who thinks his wife is having an affair (with Cherubino/Falstaff). Armbruster suggests that such parallels, and the fact that Figaro was being prepared for revival in Vienna just as Salieri was working on Falstaff, encouraged the composer to incorporate elements of Mozart’s handling of similar dramatic situations. The scene in Act 2 in which Falstaff tries to avoid Ford’s jealous rage by disguising himself as a woman is particularly reminiscent of Figaro in its dramaturgy and music.

Among the many insights born of recent Salieri performances and scholarship is that he took very seriously Gluck’s precept that “the overture ought to apprise the spectators of the nature of the action”. Some of his overtures depict events that occur directly before action begins on stage. The overture to Armida, for example, begins with a musical portrayal of the fog that surrounds Armida’s island. Falstaff begins with a ball, which Salieri anticipated in the overture by writing it in the form of a series of contredanses.

Eighteenth-century Vienna was, linguistically at least, the most cosmopolitan city in Europe, and several multi-lingual scenes in Salieri’s operas reflect that cosmopolitanism. One of the most amusing is the scena tedesca (German scene) in Falstaff, in which Mistress Ford disguises herself as a German girl in order to play a trick on Falstaff. He responds with his own mixture of German and Italian, asking the unknown “Jungfrau” to speak to him in Italian. She pleads ignorance: “Mein Herr! I little can your language speak.” To which he answers with a speech that I will not attempt to translate: “Du nur probieren . Ich bissel deutsch, tu bissel nostra lingua, a bissel pantomime, a bissel discretion … assicurieren, so tres bien mitanander explichieren.”

Salieri was not a melodist of the first rank. A few melodic formulae recur in his operas with annoying frequency, one of which Mozart may have adopted as part of the musical personality of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni; her first aria, “Ah chi mi dice mai”, begins with a melody whose descent from the second scale-degree to the third (F down to G in the key of E flat) occurs again and again in Salieri’s operas. Mozart wanted his listeners (who knew Salieri’s music well, whether they lived in Prague or Vienna) to perceive Elvira’s tune, and hence Elvira herself, as a bit stiff and old-fashioned; reflecting Mozart’s personal view of this particular conceit of Salieri’s.

Several of Salieri’s operas depend for part of their success on spectacular scenic effects. Giovanni de Gamerra, the librettist of Salieri’s late heroic-comic opera Palmira regina di Persia, called for a series of picturesque middle-eastern cityscapes and architectural extravagazas. Three princes compete for the hand of Princess Palmira. One arrives on a horse, one on a camel, and one on an elephant. In the first production the horse and the camel were real; but as to how the elephant was represented, our sources are silent. With its colourful marches, splendid crowd scenes, and well-balanced mixture of comedy, heroism and pathos, Palmira might work quite well on a modern stage. May we hope that those responsible for presenting Aida in the Baths of Caracalla will one day put Verdi’s opera temporarily aside and stage Salieri’s Palmira instead, elephant and all?

John A Rice

This is a shortened version of an article in International Opera Collector, Autumn 1997, reprinted with permission of the author. John A Rice is the author of Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera (University of Chicago Press, 1998).


Salieri on Falstaff


Salieri on Falstaff

This is my opinion on the music of my opera:

Act I
The Sinfonia (Overture) is certainly one which conveys clearly the subject if compared to other works; in fact it could be said that the subject stems from the Sinfonia. The first scene depicts a grand private party, in the home of wealthy merchants. After the opening compliments of good luck, the husband and wife say ‘Now I think it is time for more dancing, and there’s plenty more eating and drinking’. This second verse is meant to convey the idea that the party has already been dancing, and so I thought of writing a Sinfonia as a collection of several dances: the public appreciated the effect and applauded it.

The Introduction ‘Viva il commune amico’ is varied and lively, and although it is quite long for the quantity of things it contains, it arouses interest in the work, especially if Falstaff is dressed in character and acts his part well. As we shall see, the good effect of the whole opera depends on this.

The aria ‘Vendetta, sì vendetta’ …. makes a good effect when sung by a mezzo-soprano with a clear, strong, and energetic voice.

The quartet ‘Oh quanto vogliam ridere’ depends entirely on the scene, and requires much comic action, well-acted.

The aria ‘Oh die Männer kenn ich schon’ couldn’t fail to be appreciated for the way it was sung and acted. The music is very suitable for this type of joke.

The aria ‘Nell’impero di Cupido’ has more merit than the music of the preceding one, and has an excellent effect.

The finale ‘Bricconcella, alfin t’ho colta’ is interesting at the beginning, but could appear slightly too long and verbose by the end; but if the scene is well-acted, its length isn’t felt. The end, from the words ‘Così va’, is an excellent piece of music, and makes a scene in itself.

Act II
The fugato Trio ‘Prima ancor che Mastro venga’ is a piece which always wins applause if performed with fire.

The aria ‘Reca in amor la gelosia’ has a metre not often used in music… the public would probably have been indifferent to it if it hadn’t been for the echo. I had this idea after the first rehearsals, and it seemed natural as the setting is a wood at night. The Echo attracted much attention and approbation for the aria.

The finale ‘Siete già qui’ is all action, and the music is simply an accompaniment.

(extracts from the annotations on the autograph score of Falstaff: as with several of his operas, Salieri probably jotted down these remarks as an old man, perhaps around the time (ca. 1822) when he read through all his operas and made a few ‘improvements’ to the music.)


The Merry Wives of Windsor: operatic and music theatre settings


The Merry Wives of Windsor: operatic and music theatre settings

L-A. Papavoine, Le vieux coquet, or Les deux amies (Paris, 1761)
F-A. Philidor, Herne le Chasseur (Paris, 1773).
P. Ritter, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (Mannheim, 1794)
C. Ditters von Dittersdorf, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (Oels, 1796)
Salieri, Falstaff or Le tre burle (Vienna, 1799)
C.E. Horn, J. Parry, S. Webbe et al, The Merry Wives of Windsor (London, 1824)
M. Balfe, Falstaff (London, 1838)
O. Nicolai, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (Berlin, 1849)
A. Adam, Falstaff (Paris, 1856)
G. Verdi, Falstaff (Milan, 1893)
J.P. Webber, Falstaff (New York, 1928)
R. Vaughan Williams, Sir John in Love (London, 1929)
C.F.Swier, When the Cat’s away (Philadelphia, 1941)
J. Gilbert, Good Time Johnny (Birmingham, 1971)
F. Gilbert and E.W. Rogers, The genuine Music Hall version of the Merry Wives of Windsor (New York, 1977)
N. Alifantis, Nevestele vesele din Windsor (Piatra-Neamt, 1978)
A. Rea, Falstaff in and out of Love (Fresno, 1982)