alstaff," Verdi's brilliant opera about Shakespeare's Fat Knight, will conclude the Utah Opera Company's 1990-91 season. And while it is the last of Verdi's operas, it's also the liveliest, one that many opera buffs call their favorite comedy.

Utah Opera's "Falstaff" will open at the Capitol Theatre on Saturday, May 18, at 8 p.m., with further evening performances May 20, 22 and 24, and a matinee at 2 p.m. May 26. The opera will be sung in Italian, with English supertitles."Falstaff" depends greatly for success on the libretto fashioned by the masterful Arrigo Boito (who incidentally did the text for Verdi's other great, late Shakespearean opera, "Otello." Utah Opera has done both works this season).

Thus Verdi concluded his operatic career in a blaze of glory, finishing "Falstaff" when he was 80 years old - a phenomenal age in the operatic world, where composing (and singing) is considered a young person's game.

Nor was this to be like any of Verdi's other operas, its language going beyond the alternation of set pieces and recitatives to a "through-composed" style. Thus while "Falstaff" has arias, they are woven into the ongoing fabric of the piece, which makes it difficult to pull them out as excerpts. This is different Verdi, but some consider it his masterpiece.

The story follows closely Shakespeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor." The aging Sir John Falstaff, sometime companion of Prince Hal (who is to become Henry V), sees his chance for one last romance (and financial gain) by wooing and winning either of two attractive and wealthy matrons, mistresses Alice Ford and Meg Page. The women have a romp giving him his comeuppance, involving the townspeople, while the young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, run a blissful parallel course.

Supporting bass-baritone Ronald Hedlund, as Falstaff, is a cast of nationally known young artists.

Karen Anderson, a Utah native and favorite of Utah Opera audiences, will sing Alice Ford. She last sang here as Pamina in "The Magic Flute" (1987). Other roles with U.O. include Liu in "Turandot," Micaela in "Carmen" and Donna Elvira in "Don Giovanni." Since moving to the San Francisco Bay area, she has appeared with the Eugene, Sacramento and Arizona operas in leading roles.

Lee Velta makes his Utah Opera debut as Ford, Alice's husband. Velta's career encompasses roles with Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the St. Louis, Philadelphia, Santa Fe and Wolf Trap operas, among others.

Utah Opera debutante Deidra Palmour will sing Meg Page. Palmour has been a favorite at Washington Opera, singing Dorabella in "Cosi fan tutte," Charlotte in "Werther" and Prince Orlofsky in "Die Fledermaus." She's also sung with the Orlando, Dallas and Miami operas recently. Martha Jane Howe brings her interpretation of Dame Quickly to Utah after singing it with Opera Memphis and the Syracuse and Indianapolis operas, plus appearances with Canadian and Washington operas.

As Pistol and Bardolf, Scott Wilde and William Saetre come from New York and San Francisco. Wilde is a member of the Juilliard Opera Center, and Saetre is a soloist with San Francisco and Oakland symphonies and the Carmel Bach Festival, as well as the Pacific and Sacramento operas. Brian Scott will sing Dr. Caius, and Utah singers Susan Deauvono and James Miller, noted for many roles with Utah Opera, will sing the young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton.

Ron Hedlund looked every inch the passe knight, already made up for press pictures, but without the added girth yet strapped about his middle, as the role requires.

These days, Hedlund loves to sing Falstaff better than any other role. "I'd go anywhere, anytime, to do it," he declared, with a hearty laugh that billowed up from deep inside him. "The libretto is so clever, the music of great depth and dimension, and I find something new every time I sing it."

Like most of the characters, Falstaff has few arias. "This is more like a chamber opera," said Hedlund, "the arias move the action ahead, they don't stop and meditate. At this stage in his career Verdi didn't want the interruption of applause, so the knight has a couple of monologues, and a very short arietta."

Hedlund is converted to supertitles on principle, though in a comedy this complex with many puns, double entendres and plays on words, he thinks the ideal would be for audiences to know Italian well. "The Italian language is rich in insult," he laughed. "We have no suitable translation for many of their funny expressions. And sometimes the lines on the screen come after the jokes have been sung. But better late than never."

This is Hedlund's sixth production of "Falstaff," which he first sang at the American Opera Center at Juilliard, with the great Falstaff, Tito Gobbi, coaching. "He gave me such insights," said Hedlund. "He showed me how a fat man moves and walks, encouraged me to observe, and showed how to react to the other characters. When I did it soon after with Sara Caldwell's Boston Opera, people said they saw `Gobbi-isms' in my performance!"

Hedlund doesn't see Falstaff as a slapstick part in any way, nor even as a regular buffo role with many stock mannerisms and stylizations.

Does he like Falstaff the person? "Yes, I like him. He's funny, a cut-up, but he's also proud, and very vulnerable. He still thinks in terms of romance, though he's also motivated by greed. He wants to eat, drink and add to his girth. And he's poignant. There's a little of Falstaff in everyone, his humanity, his optimism. Audiences always see something of themselves, whether they admit it or not."

Since 1983, Hedlund has been a professor of voice at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where mezzo Mignon Dunn and accompanist-coach John Wustman also teach. His wife, a cellist, teaches at Illinois Wesleyan and runs a company called the String Society, which hires out instrumentalists for professional engagements.

Hedlund is impressed with the caliber of artists who are making careers in opera nowadays. "They are much more competent than when I began my career, in the '60s," he said. "Everywhere I go I find wonderful singers, who know their craft, have stage savvy. They give up so much - home, families, comfort - so they can pick up and go to fulfill the demands of the job. I made my way as a full-time professional for many years, and did all that traveling. The first year after I was married I was on the road 26 weeks!"

After a quarter-century of professional singing, Hedlund enjoys teaching, which he's always done to an extent. He finds opera a little restrictive because "companies now demand that you give at least three weeks in practice and performance," he said. "When I did `Fidelio' in Vancouver recently, they required four weeks of rehearsal.

"I couldn't let my students go that long, I flew home a couple of timesfor teaching marathons. I try not to be gone more than five weeks of a 15-week term. Nowadays I tend to do more orchestral dates, which are nice. You are gone three or four days at the most."

Hedlund's career has included appearances at every major American house except the Metropolitan Opera, and at this time he doesn't have a burning desire to go there. He's also sung at festivals such as Spoleto, Edinburgh and Santa Fe, to name a few.

"Nowadays I don't audition; people call my management and ask if I am available," he said. Besides the standard bass-baritone works, he's noted for such modern roles as the Seven Nemeses in Britten's "Death in Venice," Rev. Blitch in Floyd's "Susannah" (with San Francisco Spring Opera), Nick Shadow in "The Rake's Progress" and John Proctor in "The Crucible."

"Falstaff's" stage director, Sarah Ventura, who travels Europe, South America, Canada and the United States, serves her sixth assignment with Utah Opera. David Agler replaces the ailing Lee Schaenen to conduct the Utah Symphony and the singers. Agler has conducted widely, though he has long been associated with the San Francisco Opera and the Australian Opera, where he was principal conductor from 1985 to 1988. Costumes are by Susan Memmott Allred.

Single tickets are available at the Utah Opera box office for $10-$35 weekdays from 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. For charge sales, call 534-0888.

The Utah Opera symposium, "OperaBites," will take place Friday, May 17, at 12:15 p.m. Those speaking will be Ventura, Allred and Agler, with general director Anne Ewers moderating. Bring your own bag lunch, or a $5 lunch from Ruby's can by ordered by calling 534-0842.