Sir John Falstaff is at the Inn when Dr. Caius bursts upon the scene and loudly accuses him of robbery. Falstaff dismisses the case, and the doctor angrily departs. Falstaff finds himself alarmingly low on funds, and outlines a plan to fill both his pockets and his paunch by wooing Alice Ford and Meg Page, two wealthy wives of Windsor. Having written love letters to both, he commands his henchmen Bardolph and Pistol to deliver them, but they decline, claiming they have more honor, and Falstaff gives the letter to a messenger.
In a garden of Ford’s House, Alice and Meg eagerly show one another their extraordinary and identical letters. Outraged — and thoroughly amused — the women agree that the villain must be punished, and respond with a request for a rendezvous and tender greetings which they send with Mistress Quickly. After the women leave, Alice and Ford’s daughter Nannetta and Ford’s employee Fenton linger for a furtive meeting of their own. Meanwhile, Bardolph and Pistol warn Ford of Falstaff’s designs on his wife and his strong-box, and offer to help teach the old miscreant a lesson. Ford decides to meet Falstaff under disguise and an assumed name.
Mistress Quickly delivers the letters to Falstaff, assuring that neither Alice nor Meg know of his wooing of the other. Falstaff gloats in his triumph. Ushered in by Bardolph, “Master Brook” (Ford) seeks Falstaff’s help in courting Alice, and asks for his assistance in meeting with her. Falstaff declares that there is nothing easier as he already has an appointment with her, while her husband is away. Choked with astonishment and rage, Ford vows to catch and punish Falstaff and Alice.
While finishing their scheming, Meg, Alice and Mistress Quickly find out Ford’s plan to marry Nannetta to Dr. Caius. The women assure Nannetta such a ridiculous match will never be. Falstaff arrives and tries to woo Alice with stories of his younger years, but they are quickly interrupted with news that Ford is on his way back. Falstaff hides in a hamper, while Nannetta and Fenton profit from the confusion, and conceal themselves behind a screen. At Ford’s signal, the screen is toppled and the young lovers spring apart. Already furious at not finding Falstaff, Ford rounds on Fenton for his courtship of Nannetta, and charges off to continue with his search. Alice orders the servants to toss the hamper out of the window, and Falstaff and the dirty laundry plummet into the Thames below.
Mistress Quickly returns to Falstaff at the Garden Inn protesting that the mishap of the laundry hamper was the servants’ fault and describes a heartbroken Alice whose only hope of consolation lies in another rendezvous with him. He is invited to a midnight assignation in Windsor Park, where he is to wait for Alice under Herne’s Oak, disguised as the Sable Huntsman, a phantom said to haunt the spot. Alice describes to the other women, Ford, Caius and Fenton the supernatural plot with fairies, elves and imps to embarrass Falstaff in front of the entire village. Ford assures Caius that his marriage to Nannetta will be solemnized at the end of the masquerade. Caius will take the hand of the Queen of Fairies and Ford will bless the union. Quickly overhears their plot, and warns the other women.
In the park, Falstaff’s attempts at wooing Alice are once again interrupted by warnings of goblins and witches. The elves and imp pinch and poke Falstaff, while the adults heap threats and insults on him, demanding that he mend his ways. Howling for mercy, Falstaff swears that he has learned his lesson. Ford announces that the masquerade will end with the betrothal of the fairy queen. As Caius joins hands with his intended, Alice presents another couple who wish to be united. After Ford has placed his benediction on all four, they unmask, and he finds that he has married his daughter to Fenton, while Caius’s bride turns out to be Bardolph. Falstaff steps forward to lead the entire assembly in pointing out the moral of the story: “Everything in the world comes down to jesting, and man was born to play the fool…. But he who laughs last, laughs best!”
Courtesy of Washington National Opera