Born Oct. 10, 1813 -- 200 years ago, as we speak -- Giuseppe Verdi composed "Falstaff," his last opera, when he was nearly 80. It's a Shakespearean romp in which the Merry Wives of Windsor tease and humiliate the horny Sir Jack: lure him to their chambers, dump him in the River Thames and finally haunt him in a dark forest, where the drunken knight thinks he is beset by witches and fairies at midnight.

It's a lot of work, all this revenge against a blundering philanderer. Opera-goers sometimes are hard put to explain the perpetrators' motivations. The Wives can seem as cruel as Falstaff is ridiculous: Why?

In bass-baritone Bryn Terfel -- who sings the role of Falstaff through Nov. 2 at War Memorial Opera House -- we have our answer: Falstaff is worse than a preening flirt, a master of comic self-regard who deserves a come-uppance for inviting married women to be his merry nymphs, as he puts it. No, his vanity veers toward nihilism; nothing has meaning beyond his big fat belly, which he regards as a sanctum of manliness. There is something repellent and dangerous about him; like the clown who scares children, he is best avoided -- or vanquished.


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Terfel has owned this role for years, and he owns it again at San Francisco Opera, where "Falstaff" opened Tuesday in a production that bursts with hilarity even as it teaches darker lessons. Whether lifting skirts, dressing up like a peacock for his trysts, or punching fellow louts in the nose, Terfel controls the action. And then there is his voice: stentorian or absolutely lovely, as he sings the most tender love songs to his own self, and to that belly. He is not quite stable, or sane.

Bryn Terfel plays the title character in a scene from the San Francisco Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s "Falstaff," Sunday,
Bryn Terfel plays the title character in a scene from the San Francisco Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Falstaff," Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group) ( D. ROSS CAMERON )

In those ludicrous tender moments, his phrases are shapely, like ribbons wafting in the breeze; Terfel makes it all seem so easy.

That must be frustrating to other members of this strong cast; most can't keep up, though a couple nearly do. As Dame Quickly -- the liaison, who helps the Merry Wives lay their traps for Falstaff -- mezzo-soprano Meredith Arwady is a ball of comic energy, and her clarion voice is supple through all registers. As Nannetta, young woman in love, soprano Heidi Stober performs lustrously; as queen of the fairies, in the midnight scene, her voice enchants like the "poems and charms" of which she sings.

Bryn Terfel, center, plays Sir John Falstaff, and Greg Fedderly, left, and Andrea Silvestrelli play Bardolfo and Pistola, respectively, in a scene from the
Bryn Terfel, center, plays Sir John Falstaff, and Greg Fedderly, left, and Andrea Silvestrelli play Bardolfo and Pistola, respectively, in a scene from the San Francisco Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Falstaff," Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group) ( D. ROSS CAMERON )

Directed by Olivier Tambosi, the production is a revival of one that premiered in 1998 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, with Terfel as Falstaff. Tuesday, the orchestra played superbly for music director Nicola Luisotti; the low strings were especially resonant. Luisotti's tempos were spacious and then scampering, flexible yet on-point as the cast pattered through terrific quartets, quintets and tentets. The darkness and delicacies of Verdi's score shone, and, except for a handful of moments in the final act, the pace didn't flag.

Tenor Francesco Demuro sang with ardor and charm as Fenton, Nannetta's husband-to-be, though he was at times thin-voiced at his upper limits. Soprano Ainhoa Arteta -- as Alice Ford, one of the Merry Wives (and Nannetta's mom) -- is a shining soprano, though her voice lacked some smoothness crossing registers. As her jealous husband Ford, baritone Fabio Capitanucci at his best burned with dark passions, though he also could be curiously bland.

As Meg Page, another of the Merry Wives (and, like Alice, one of Falstaff's targets) mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier was supple and creamy-toned. The roles of Pistola and Bardolfo, Falstaff's thieving sidekicks, were effectively sung by suave tenor Greg Fedderly and granite-voiced bass Andrea Silvestrelli, respectively. Muscular tenor Joel Sorensen was perhaps too comically high-strung as Dr. Caius, Ford's sidekick.

This handsome production's oaken sets (by Frank Philipp Schlossman) are multi-purposed, functioning as Falstaff's bedroom at the Garter Inn, and as Alice Ford's garden and chambers. In the final scene, they open into a starry midnight sky to cap a tale that is both playful and seriously instructive. As the cast sings in the famous closing number: "All the world's a jest, and man is born to play the fool."

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin

San Francisco Opera

Presenting Giuseppe Verdi's 'Falstaff'
Libretto by Arrigo Boito

Though: Nov. 2

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $23-$385, 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.org
Also: The Oct. 11 performance (8 p.m.) will be simulcast at Stanford University's Frost Amphitheater; free admission