Windsor, in the reign of Henry IV (1399–1413)
At the Garter Inn, Sir John Falstaff, a knight who has seen better days but who chose a life of debauchery long ago, is forced to listen to the indignant Dr. Caius’s accusations that Falstaff’s two servants, Bardolfo and Pistola, had got him drunk the night before and robbed him. But it is to no avail that Caius demands the return of his money, as Falstaff, acting as arbitrator in the case, finds the confessions contradictory and declares the charge to be unfounded. Steal with grace and at the right time – the fat knight warns his two men after Caius leaves in fury, but he then has to face the bill presented by the innkeeper, as well as his own lack of funds. However, Falstaff has an ambitious plan that he immediately reveals to his servants. Relying on his manly attractiveness and high birth, he is planning to seduce two wives of Windsor: Alice, wife of the wealthy Ford, and Meg Page, who is also rich. According to the plan, which is based on the two women’s imagined attraction to him, the two far-from-gentlemanly lackeys are to act as postmen of the love letters, but they, citing gentlemanly honour, refuse to be procurers by delivering the letters inviting the women to the rendezvous. The indignant Falstaff orders his page to deliver the letters instead, and then tells the two disobedient servants what he thinks about the honour they have been talking about, finally chasing them away.
In Ford’s garden, Alice and her daughter Nannetta are chatting with Meg Page and the experienced Mistress Quickly. Both ladies mention the love-letters – with identical texts – they have each received from Falstaff. The wives resolve to teach the old rake a lesson, as they both despise him. They retreat to work out the plan as, in the other part of the garden, the men appear: Ford, Falstaff’s two servants, who have revealed Falstaff’s plan to him, and Nannetta’s two suitors: Caius and the young Fentona, whom the girl is in love with. Ford, alarmed by the potential cuckolding, also encourages his companions to take revenge and set atrap. The two groups, those of the men and the women, conceal their plans from the others: only the two lovers, Nannetta and Fenton attempt to find each other in order to exchange some hasty words and kisses. The women decide to send Mistress Quickly as an envoy to Falstaff, while the men agree that Ford will go – in disguise – to the pub that serves as the gallant knight’s residence.
In the pub, Falstaff readmits the two servants, who feign remorse and inform their once-again master that a lady wishes to talk to him. It is Mistress Quickly, who brings the false news to Falstaff that his courting has been a complete success: both Alice and Meg are in passionate love with the knight, and Alice wants to see her suitor between two and three while her husband is away. Hardly has Falstaff said good-bye to the woman, whom he rewards for bringing the goodnews, when a new guest is announced to him: the wealthy Signor Fontana. This visitor is, in fact, Ford in disguise, who asks Falstaff to seduce Alice Ford with his famously irresistible attractiveness, and for a hefty sum at that; if she yields once, she might be more willing to succumb to Signor Fontana’s advances as well. Falstaff agrees to the tasks, “assuring ” the shocked husband that Mrs Ford would soon be falling in the knight’s arms anyway – between two and three o’clock. Falstaff, who predicts Ford’s certain cuckolding, and Ford, who is furious with jealousy, depart together, with the husband feigning calm and leaving the scene arm in arm with his wife’s fat seducer.
The ladies in Ford’s house listen to Mistress Quickly’s detailed account with satisfaction, and cannot wait to see how Falstaff will fall in the trap, which will feature a large clothes hamper in the main role. Amidst the preparations, Alice queries the weeping Nannetta, who complains that Ford wants her to marry the lanky Dr. Caius. Alice and the others reject this plan indignantly, and, in the meantime, they merrily arrange the stage for the rendezvous. The knight, dressed up smartly, arrives and begins his passionate courting straight away. He says that if Ford dies, he will marry her, and recalls his youth when he was slender and served as a page in the court of the Duke of Norfolk. As planned, Mistress Quickly interrupts the rendezvous, immediately followed by Meg Page, who brings news that the jealous and armed husband is approaching. What had been devised as a trick becomes reality as Ford dashes into the room to search the house with his men and take revenge on the fat knight. The women hide the frightened Falstaff behind a screen and then place him into a large clothes hamper. Nannetta and Fentona retreat to the now-vacant hiding place behind the screen, but the noises of the two lovers’ dalliance calls the attention of Ford’s men, who are busy turning the house upside down. While Falstaff gasps for air in the hamper, the men discover Nannetta and Fentona kissing. This sight makes Ford even more furious, as he does not want his daughter to marry Fentona, but he hurries on to find Falstaff. The women have the hamper thrown into the Thames together with the exhausted Falstaff in it, and at the sight of this scene, the men join the merry wives of Windsor.
Having crawled out of the Thames, Falstaff, in a gloomy mood, is drying himself outside his favourite haunt, contemplating the effervescence of his glory and the vileness of the world. Some mulled wine slowly cheers up the knight, so he lets Mistress Quickly, who has just found him, express Alice’s deepest apologies for the terrible misunderstanding. On behalf of Alice (who is listening to the conversation with the other women in the background), she asks Falstaff to come to another rendezvous in Windsor Forest at midnight – dressed as the legendary Black Huntsman. The old scoundrel sets off happily to put on his attire while Ford and his wife, now working together, prepare a trap for Falstaff. They decide that Nannetta will dress up as a fairy queen, Meg as a nymph and Mistress Quickly as a witch, and they will bring all their friends and servants to frighten the knight. In the meantime, Ford and Dr. Caius agree that, as the deception unfolds, the doctor, dressed up as a monk, will stand by Nannetta, who will be wearing a veil, so that the father can bless their wedlock, thus confronting his daughter and his likewise reluctant wife with a fait accompli. However, Mistress Quickly overhears the conversation, which will send events moving in a different direction.
At the designated meeting-place, the old oak tree on a clearing in Windsor forest, everything has been prepared by midnight to teach Falstaff his lesson. The women give Fentona a monk’s habit and a mask, and we also learn that someone else will be wearing the fairy queen’s attire: the bribed Bardolfo. The frightened Falstaff, wearing a helmet with antlers, is already approaching the oak;instead of the rendezvous, ghostly apparitions await him: fairies, elves and the monsters of the forest – Ford, Alice and their friends. They frighten and even beat up the fat knight, who is scared to death and swears to rehabilitate himself. After Falstaff recognises Bardolfo, Ford and his companions remove their masks, and the fat knight must bear the elves’ mockery. The joyful Ford asks the fairy queen and the monk to step up before him so he can bless their union, according to the plan, but Alice asks her husband to also bless another couple who are also wearing the costumes of a fairy queen and a monk. Ford agrees reluctantly and is shocked to see that he has brought together Dr. Caius with Bardolfo and Nannetta with Fentona. Ford is compelled to accept what has happened and the opera finishes with a merry song, at the suggestion of Falstaff, who has cheered up after the last twist of the story.