After stunning successes in Verdi’s massively dramatic Otello and Macbeth in past seasons with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Falstaff represents the greatest possible change of pace for Riccardo Muti. As with all his Verdi performances, the CSO’s music director has won unanimous praise for Falstaff. He’s conducted it at the “source” — Milan’s La Scala (where it premiered triumphantly in 1893) — and in 2001 he had the honor of performing it in Busseto to commemorate the Verdi centenary. The CSO Falstaff completes Muti’s cycle of Verdi’s “Shakespeare operas,” each a work truly worthy of the playwright whom Verdi admired above all others.

(Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will perform a concert version of Falstaff on April 21, 23 and 26; guest vocalists include baritone Ambrogio Maestri in the title role, soprano Eleonora Buratto as Alice Ford, baritone Luca Salsi as Ford, soprano Rosa Feola as Nannetta and mezzo Daniela Barcellona as Mistress Quickly.)

Arrigo Boito’s libretto for Falstaff draws on three plays — mainly The Merry Wives of Windsor, but also portions of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Boito brings Shakespeare’s characters together in a brilliant blend of uproarious comedy and captivatingly youthful romance. Verdi’s one previous attempt at operatic comedy, very early in his career, had been a total disaster, and he longed to show the world that he could, in fact, create a successful comic opera. He succeeded beyond his — and everyone else’s — wildest expectations.

Sir John Falstaff is a rotund, aging, but still-vital knight who has the audacity to send the same love letter to two different women, Alice Ford and Meg Page. When the pair discover that their letters are identical, Alice hatches one scheme after another to force Sir John into seeing the error of his ways. Along the way, the audience can savor a delicious subplot involving the Fords’ daughter Nannetta and young Fenton, the young man she’s desperate to marry.

All the intrigue comes to life through a score that illuminates every moment of this tale. The dialogue moves swiftly, but also lyrically (reminding listeners that Verdi did, after all, refer to Falstaff as a “commedia lirica”). The melodies are brief, but they’re the perfect match for the buoyant, quicksilver pacing of this music. Verdi’s enchanting love scenes for Fenton and Nannetta seem the creation of an ardent, impulsive young man, not a venerable composer already in his mid-70s. Their appeal of those scenes is matched by the irrepressible gaiety of “the merry wives,” the passion of Ford’s outburst of jealousy, and above all, the supremely characterful monologues of Falstaff himself. Even if the opera revolves around the indomitable Sir John, each of the 10 roles is crucial to the plot, making this the ensemble opera par excellence.

So detailed and imaginative is Verdi’s scoring that the orchestra seems to become another character in the opera, a delightful commentator in each episode. This opera can work its magic only with the guidance of a masterful conductor — that will be clear in every note of Muti’s Falstaff.  With his incomparable musicianship, command of style and unique understanding of Verdi’s genius, Maestro Muti will make Falstaff both a memorable highlight of the season and the crown of his Verdi performances in Chicago.

Roger Pines is the dramaturg for Lyric Opera of Chicago.

TOP: Ambrogio Maestri in the 2011 Teatro Regio di Parma production of Verdi’s Falstaff.