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The character of Sir John Falstaff – a vain, corpulent and cowardly knight - appears in Shakespeare’s two 'Henry IV' plays and 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'. Falstaff has also inspired a number of great classical works.
The 79-year old Verdi was persuaded out of retirement by the librettist Boito to compose his 28th and final opera, based on 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' and scenes from 'Henry IV', parts 1 and 2. In it the vain old knight attempts to seduce two married women for purely mercenary reasons. Pictured are Yvonne Kenny and Stephen Richardson in a 2006 production at the Sydney Opera House.
The legendary Welsh baritone Geraint Evans first played Falstaff at Glyndebourne in 1957 and went on to perform the part around the world, including Covent Garden, the Vienna Staatsoper and the Metropolitan Opera. His interpretation was described as 'dark-voiced and riotously lustful'.
Elgar thought his symphonic poem - based on the Falstaff of 'Henry IV' - was his finest orchestral piece, and many Elgar fans agree, but it has not become a popular favourite. According to Elgar, Falstaff is depicted in the music as 'a goodly, portly man, of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye and a most noble carriage.'
One of the earliest operatic versions of Shakespeare's 'The Merry Wives of Windsor', Salieri's Falstaff cuts back the original plot but adds a scene in which Mistress Ford pretends to be German to charm the old knight. The entire opera shows the influence of Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro', which was being successfully revived at the time.
Today's great Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel has been performing Verdi's version of Falstaff for some years. His reading of the role reveals a noble graceful knight, albeit past his prime.
The veteran music hall comedian George Robey played Falstaff in Laurence Olivier's classic film version of 'Henry V', with a fine score by William Walton. Walton's 'Death of Falstaff' cue is particularly moving.
For his one act opera, Holst wrote his own libretto, assembling the story from episodes set at the Boar's Head Inn from the two parts of 'Henry IV'. Three of the melodic passages are original, otherwise, Holst devised his score from reworking folk tunes.
Robbie Coltrane played Falstaff in Kenneth Branagh's more recent screen adaptation of 'Henry V'. Considered one of the best Shakespeare film adaptations ever made, the stirring score came from Branagh's longtime composer associate Patrick Doyle, who sings on the soundtrack.
When two married women receive love letters from the impoverished Falstaff, they decide to teach him a lesson, tipping him into a ditch from a laundry basket. Pictured in the 1961 Covent Garden production are Mariella Angioletti as Mistress Ford, Josephine Veasey as Mistress Page, Geraint Evans as Falstaff, and Regina Resnick as Mistress Quickly.
Vaughan Williams' version of 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' incorporates English folk tunes, including 'Greensleeves'. Performances of the opera are rare. After 1958, the opera remained unstaged in the UK until the 2006 production at English National Opera which was the company's first production of the work.