Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2007
Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of “Greensleeves”Merry Wives 5.5.18–19
The history of Shakespeare’s work in musical adaptation is one in which composition and performance is driven not simply by its Shakespearian source but one in which the music has proved central to, indeed constitutive of, our understanding, interpretation and subsequent stagings of Shakespeare. In a recent edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Giorgio Melchiori observed that the position of this particular play in the canon, not least as a ’Falstaff play‚, one that can be placed alongside the two parts of Henry IV in this regard, is largely a product of the sustained attention of operatic adaptors and in particular of the phenomenal success in the late nineteenth century of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff (1893).
Despite its recent rightful reclamation by critics who have argued persuasively on behalf of the local detail and specificity of the play’s representations of domesticity and female agency, few scholars would argue that The Merry Wives of Windsor is central in the performative or literary-critical canon of Shakespeare. Yet a history of opera and musicals would tell a very different story. There were ten major operatic versions between 1761 and 1929, ranging from eighteenth-century French and German adaptations – Les Deux Amies, ou le Vieux Garçon, with music by Louis August Papavoine, now lost, performed in Paris in 1761; Herne le Chasseurset by P. A. D. Philidor in 1773; and two musical settings of Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, a German libretto by Georg Christian Romer, by Peter Ritter in 1794 and Karl Ditter von Dittersdorf in 1796 – to Antonio Salieri’s opera buffa or comic opera for the Austro-Hungarian imperial court at Vienna in 1799, Falstaff, o le tre burle, which created a soprano role for the character of Anne Ford, to Otto Nicolai’s Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor (1849).