Nicolai's Sir John Falstaff first appeared on the operatic stage two and a half centuries after his domination of Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Bard's introduction of the rotund knight had come in Henry IV, Part 1, where he played a short but memorable role. Still, it was his central role in Shakespeare's sole domestic comedy that made him a figure of legend. So potent a character and so finely drawn was he that many composers sought to work him into sung drama. Antonio Salieri set him in his Falstaff in 1799, enjoying 24 performances at Vienna's Kämtnertor-Theater as his reward. That opera shares with the operas of Nicolai and Verdi the distinction of having a viable life after its premiere; composers not so fortunate include Papavoine, Ritter, Ditters von Dittersdorf, Mercadante, Balfe, Thomas, and Adam. In the twentieth century, Ralph Vaughan Williams composed Sir John in Love, an opera with some merit, though nothing like the mercurial work of genius Verdi achieved.
As with Verdi's Falstaff, Nicolai's opera offers its cast members more opportunities for ensemble playing than arias for vocal display. The most frequently heard aria from Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, both on recordings and in concert, is Falstaff's "Als Büblein Klein an die Mutter Brust," a rollicking tavern song and a chance at the beginning of Act II for the protagonist to demonstrate the lowest register of his bass voice. (Verdi wrote his hero's music in the baritone register, although a bass-baritone with a good top register can manage it as well.) There is in Nicolai's work, no Dame Quickly, whose "Reverenzas" in Verdi's Falstaff make for a quite unforgettable character. Nicolai's music is solid and often vivid, but not to be compared with the quicksilver fleetness and fecundity that informs Verdi's final stage work.
While Verdi had for a librettist Arrigo Boito, one of Italy's finest writers and a constant encouragement to the aged composer, Nicolai had someone of a considerably lesser order, Hermann Saloman Mosenthal. The result was a libretto (based closely on Shakespeare) of sturdy competence rather than the miraculous text Boito provided Verdi, but it sufficed for Nicolai's needs. The composer himself wrote of his deliberate and enthusiastic approach to composing the music. He began it in December 1845 and completed the work in 1848. The premiere took place at the Königlichen Opernhaus in Berlin on March 9, 1849.
If Nicolai was unable to match the blinding brilliance of Verdi's achievement (still some years to come), he nonetheless created a comic opera that still holds the stage in German-speaking countries and is occasionally mounted elsewhere when a bass of exceptional personality, histrionic ability, and vocal strength is available.