Michael Zwiebach has a list of “Top Ten Shakespeare Operas” over at San Francisco Classical Voice, but he leaves out a favorite of mine: Vaughn Williams’s Sir John in Love. Verdi’s Falstaff is a completely wonderful opera, don’t get me wrong. But Verdi and Boito transformed it so well into a polished opera buffa in the Italian style that if you didn’t look at the program notes you might never guess that it takes place in England.
Sir John in Love is less well constructed, I think, but at the same time its music conveys a love of the English countryside and the feel of country society in Elizabethan England that I don’t hear in Falstaff. That pastoral quality is what makes The Merry Wives of Windsor special among Shakespeare’s plays — in terms of dramatic construction, it’s one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays, but Merry Wives is the only play that Shakespeare set in his own time and place, and in which he was writing openly and directly about a society and a social order that he knew at first hand. So the play has its own unique if rough-hewn quality, and the words and music in Sir John capture that atmosphere wonderfully well. You can practically smell the fresh-cut hay and the sawdust and the spilled beer in the music.
Of course, any top ten list is a very personal selection, and everyone gets to have different favorites. I just wanted to make a case for one of mine.