Straight from the Source: Verdi's 'Falstaff' from La Scala
The opera is set in Windsor in the early 15th century, during the reign of Henry the 4th. To begin ACT ONE, Sir John Falstaff is sitting at a table in the Garter Inn, with his scruffy companions Bardolph and Pistol. They're knights who have all seen better days.
When nobody has the money to pay the bar bill, Falstaff reveals a plan to improve their luck. His envelopes contain love letters to two wealthy women, Alice Ford and Meg Page. When he asks Bardolph and Pistol 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 Ford and her daughter Nannetta are in their garden talking to Meg Page and Mistress Quickly. When Alice and Meg discover they're holding identical letters from Falstaff, they decide to get even with him.
As they leave, Mr. Ford -- Alice's husband -- arrives with Caius, Fenton, Bardolph and Pistol. They all warn Ford about Falstaff's designs, as Nannetta and her secret lover Fenton are briefly left alone, and 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 first act's finale, the men and women sing of their plots, determined to cut the fat knight down to size.
For the start of ACT TWO the action returns to the Garter Inn, where Falstaff pretends to accept apologies from Bardolph and Pistol. Mistress Quickly enters and assures Falstaff that both Alice Ford and Meg Page return his affections. After arranging a meeting with Alice, Falstaff gives Mistress Quickly a puny tip, then prances and preens for everyone.
Mr. Ford enters, in disguise. Claiming to be a certain "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.
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 arrives on schedule, and 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 appears and announces that Ford is on the way, and he's angry. When Ford gets there, he and his men search the house. While that's happening, Falstaff comes out from behind the screen, and hides in a basket of dirty laundry.
Ford returns to the room, hears some odd noises, and knocks over the screen to investigate, only to find Fenton and Nanetta sneaking a kiss. Then everyone runs upstairs, where Alice orders her servants to dump the laundry basket into the River Thames. Alice and her husband look out the window to see Falstaff ignominiously blubbering in the water.
As ACT THREE opens, Falstaff is -- where else? -- back at the Garter Inn, drinking. He wails about his unlucky adventure, but his complaints come to an end when Mistress Quickly arrives. She insists that Alice Page is still in love with him. To prove it, she produces a note from Alice urging a midnight tryst in Windsor Park, under the big oak tree.
Mistress Quickly then distracts Falstaff with a spooky tale of the Black Huntsman's ghost, which supposedly haunts the 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 next scene takes place in the moonlit Forest. Fenton is disguised as a monk, and Nanetta is dressed as queen of the fairies, while Meg is wearing a nymph costume and Mistress Quickly is playing a witch. They all scatter when Falstaff comes tromping in, dressed in a ludicrous hunter's outfit.
As he's greeting Alice, Meg -- the nymph -- warns of approaching demons. Falstaff shudders and cowers, while Nanetta calls to some others who are disguised as forest creatures. They all come out, prodding, poking, and pinching Falstaff, who finally is so undone that he begs for mercy. Then he recognizes Bardolph behind one of the masks. He's confused, but only for a second -- and then comes out with a big, booming laugh. Falstaff may be a braggart, a cheat and a liar, but nobody can say he lacks a sense of humor.
Alice Ford brings forward two brides and two grooms, all still in disguise, and presents them to her husband. Before he quite realizes what he's doing, Mr. Ford marries off his daughter Nanetta to her lover Fenton -- and in the process he also marries Dr. Caius and Bardolph. Ford realizes he's been tricked, but gives his blessing nonetheless. The opera concludes as Falstaff leads the entire company in declaring: "All the world is a joke, and man is born a jokester."