When we think of Giuseppe Verdi, it’s usually the composer’s dramatic works that first come to mind—operas such as “Macbeth,” “Rigoletto,” “Otello” and others. But many opera lovers have a special place in their hearts for “Falstaff,” Verdi’s brilliant comedy and the composer’s final opera. 

Written when Verdi was nearly 80, the 1893 opera features Shakespeare’s enormous—and enormously amorous—knight as the title character. With texts drawn from “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Henry IV,” Parts One and Two, Verdi’s frequent writing partner Arrigo Boito devised the new work’s libretto. It was Verdi’s crowning achievement, yet “Falstaff,” despite its brilliance, doesn’t get staged nearly often enough—which makes Opera San José’s production one of the season’s principal attractions. 

Reviving his 2013 staging for the company, director José Maria Condemi is once again at the helm of this “Falstaff.” Conducted by Joseph Marcheso, and featuring an energetic cast headed by baritone Darren Lekeith Drone in the title role, the production returned to enthusiastic cheers at Saturday night’s opening performance, which repeats through Feb. 26 (Johannes Löhner will conduct performances on Feb. 24 and Feb. 26). 

The opera opens in the Garter Inn tavern, where Falstaff, whose outsized appetites for food and drink have left him deeply in debt, hatches a scheme. He tells his sidekicks, Bardolfo and Pistola, that he’ll seduce Alice Ford and Meg Page, two wives married to wealthy local men, and count on them to cover his bills. 

The next scene, in Ford’s Garden, introduces the wives: Alice Ford, her daughter Nanetta, Meg Page and Mistress Quickly. As they discuss Falstaff—Alice and Meg have each received love letters from him—and compare notes, they realize both missives are identical. It’s the ultimate insult: He’s sent them a form letter. 

Incensed, they agree to take revenge. Even as they’re deciding how to proceed, Master Ford makes his own plan. He’ll disguise himself to entrap Falstaff. 

As the production accelerates, it also reveals the plot’s intricacies; Condemi’s well-paced staging of the opera’s pivotal scene, in which Falstaff hides from his pursuers in a giant laundry basket, brings the production’s first half to a riotously funny end. 

Condemi and designers Steven C. Kemp (sets), (lighting), and Howard Tsvi Kaplan (costumes) give the opera the look of Shakespeare’s Windsor; Condemi employs his principal motif—enormous wine barrels serving as props, décor and structural designs—in each new scene. Ford’s house opens on a verdant backdrop with topiary visible outside a tall window, and the opera’s Act 3 midnight scene at Windsor Park is filled with softly colored figures of enchantment. 

The eye-catching set in Opera San José’s production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” includes topiary and evokes Shakespeare’s Windsor. (Photo by David Allen)

Drone, in his company debut, gave a terrific performance in the title role. From his first scene, laying out Falstaff’s motto — “One must always steal with grace and good timing” — he delivered the character in voice and demeanor. His hearty tone was occasionally overcome in the opera’s ensemble scenes, but his lyrical phrasing and expansive physicality were impressive. Soprano Chanáe Curtis gave a splendid performance as Alice Ford; singing with clarity and precision, she illuminated the role with pinpoint comic timing and gorgeous tone. 

Mezzo-soprano Shanley Horvitz’s Meg Page, and contralto Megan Esther Grey, as Mistress Quickly, made excellent contributions; soprano Natalia Santaliz was an endearing Nannetta.   

From left, Natalia Santaliz as Nannetta, Chanáe Curtis as Alice Ford (front), Shanley Horvitz as Meg Page (back), and Megan Esther Grey as Mistress Quickly appear in Opera San José’s delightful “Falstaff.” (Photo by David Allen) 

The male supporting roles were just as well cast. In the role of Ford, who disguises himself as “Signor Fountain” to ensnare Falstaff, baritone Eugene Brancoveanu delivered his Act 2 scene with thrilling vehemence. Zhengyi Bai (Dr. Caius), Mark Molomot (Bardolfo) and Andrew Allan Hiers (Pistola) made essential appearances, and Jonghyun Park partnered attractively with Santaliz as Fenton. Laurel Winzler and Alexander Hernandez-Lopez completed the cast in non-singing roles, and the chorus made shapely contributions throughout. 

Marcheso wove the disparate elements of the performance into a moving ensemble. Under his direction, this “Falstaff” was a rare and memorable night for the company. 

Opera San José’s “Falstaff” continues through Feb. 26 at California Theatre, 345 S 1st St, San Jos San Jose. Tickets are $55-$195; visit operasj.org.