"Falstaff," Verdi's last opera, promises four more performances of first-rate entertainment in its current production by the Utah Opera Company.

To tell the tale of Shakespeare's fat knight who fancies himself available for one last fling, Verdi quickened his pace almost to a patter, thus turning over a new compositional leaf at the age of 80.Here you'll find different Verdi opera than you are accustomed to, sans the usual conspicuous set pieces accented with a flourish. Rather this is a conversational opera, of almost chamber proportions.

The characters sing at the same pace as life is lived, one scene full of lively people in animated conversation following another. Yet there is no lack of melody, or even mini-arias that charm for a moment, then move along. Indeed, the whole is a tuneful romp filled with goodnatured laughs, in which stage director Sarah Ventura has stressed humanity and situational humor, without caricature.

The piece is a visual delight, with Windsor's bucolic countryside forming the backdrop for the Garter Inn, Ford's house and garden, and finally Herne's ancient oak in Windsor Park - the latter evocating the ghostly magic needed for a typical Shakespearean midnight denouement.

Supertitles flash thick and fast in this quick-paced comedy, and one senses the laughs sometimes come ahead of or behind the actual jokes. For this opera, it would be desirable to be an accomplished Italian linguist, since Boito's libretto is noted for its puns and plays on words. Nonetheless, thanks be for the translations that keep an audience chuckling and even guffawing as the plot unfolds.

Ronald Hedlund makes a delightful Falstaff, rolling out the music in an ample bass. He's a bon vivant in his own coarse way, a boon companion of real charm, and never loses a certain dignity, whatever tricks are being played on him.

He's not padded to the point of being grossly fat, and in olden days unclouded by cholesterol/fat worries, he glories in his girth. Hedlund evokes the right balance of audience sympathy and ridicule, remains lovable all the while and accepts his final comedown with grace.

The supporting cast is excellent, led by Karen Anderson as Alice Ford, the principal object of Falstaff's designs. Anderson sings both beautifully and authoritatively in ensemble, and is a spirited actress who takes no nonsense, without ever being spiteful. Diedra Palmour is her equally animated counterpart as Meg Page, with a nice mezzo voice and lively acting.

Alto Martha Jane Howe is an accomplished singing actress, with many turns of gesture and nuance that accentuate the busybody liaison duties of Dame Quickly. Add Susan Deauvono as the captivating little Nannetta with floating coloratura, for a quartet of ladies who create a comic buzz every time they put their heads together.

On the masculine side we have Lee Velta as Ford, making the best of the intransigent position dealt out to him with some strong acting and singing. James Miller perseveres as the young lover Fenton, vocally appealing in many innocent moments with Nanetta and a charming love arietta in the final act.

Brian Scott as Dr. Caius, William Saetre as Bardolf and Scott Wilde as Pistol all throw themselves zestfully into their comic opportunities. The famous laundry basket scene is a comic highlight.

Conductor David Agler makes an auspicious Utah Opera debut, maintaining the pace, balancing instruments and singers, and bringing off the intricacies of this opera, which is often fiendishly difficult where it sounds most natural.

For example, one admired the sure footing of all in the second scene, where the four women and five supporting men alternately traipse through Ford's garden, all jabbering non-stop and overlapping each other. Equally skillful is the fugal, laughing finale.

Costumes by Susan Memmott Allred maintain her usual standards of beauty and authenticity. Kay Barrell's lighting is excellent, especially in the final scene, though the smoke does drift into the auditorium.