Those savvy enough to have read last Friday's "Joe Sixpack" column found rare sympathy for Sir John Falstaff's boozy excesses. Though some may relate to Shakespeare's lecherous, obese, scheming and completely untrustworthy knight and his rascally crew of knaves, few would admit it.

Yet the intensely serious Giuseppe Verdi came out of pastoral retirement at age 79 to write his only mature comedy about Sir John. Verdi, who loved Shakespeare, had become amused by Falstaff's escapades in "Henry IV" (Parts I and II) and "The Merry Wives of Windsor," and his demise in "Henry V."

Perhaps it was Falstaff's lust for life and completely unapologetic revelry that appealed to Verdi, or Shakespeare's masterful use of this exuberant character.

The Opera Company of Philadelphia wraps its season with this comic masterpiece, unique among Verdi's usually darker and more dramatic works.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris, the company's music director, hails from Bergamo, Italy, a scant 55 miles from Verdi's home near Busseto. He has this composer's music in his blood, and a special appreciation for the master's farewell work.

Roberto de Candia, a great Figaro last season, and star soprano and lusty comic Christine Goerke (so memorable in "Die Fledermaus") play Sir John and Alice (ah-LEE-chay) Ford. Baritone Mark Stone portrays Ford, with tenor Steven Cole as Bardolfo.

Five artists who studied locally have major roles. Tenor Jesus Garcia (Fenton) and a current resident artist, soprano Evelyn Pollock (Nannetta), were trained at the Academy of Vocal Arts. Contralto Meredith Arwady (Dame Quickly), soprano Elizabeth de Shong (Meg Page) and bass Matthew Rose (Pistola) are all Curtis Institute alumni.

The company's general director, Robert Driver, is handling the stage direction, using the sets designed for the 1997 show by Paul Shortt and built at the company's production center. Richard St. Clair once again will excel in his opulent costuming, and Drew Billiau will provide his effective lighting design.

In the opera, Sir John's plot to woo two women at once backfires, and the ladies play along to outsmart him. He's eventually dumped out a window into the Thames River and thrashed in a wood, but his monumental zest for life always prevails.

In the finale, Verdi composed an incredibly complex fugue in which Falstaff faces the audience and proclaims his view of life. "Everything in the world is a joke," he reveals, "and he who laughs last laughs best."

Considering the expectations of audiences in Verdi's day for a typically dramatic, Verdian death at the final curtain - and considering the composer's insistence that his success be measured only by box office - this was an astonishing departure.

But unlike such famous fiascoes as "La Boheme," "Carmen" and "Madama Butterfly," "Falstaff" debuted to huge success at La Scala in 1893 with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Because of the tumult, Verdi had to be led out through a side door of the theater, and crowds cheered for hours outside his hotel window.

On the day of the important Manchester-Milan soccer semifinals recently, with conductor Rovaris hoping for a lopsided Milan win, we talked over lunch about the uniqueness of this rambunctious character.

Q: Why do you think "Falstaff" has a special place?

A: Usually opera needs arias and duets, and here you don't have that because Verdi's music describes each word and shows their connection. Other operas have action, then stop to show the situation, but here there is always action, everything is always in progress.

It's a chamber piece, really, because to enjoy the opera you have to enjoy the text Verdi admired so much, without a big tune you go out singing.

Q: What are the difficulties in conducting "Falstaff"?

A: It's difficult because you never have five minutes in the same mode. There are always unexpected changes. Sometimes to underline a situation, he stops the melody and the singers repeat the same note, as you find in psalms. I think it's lots of fun for the players because they don't have long arias which they only accompany. It's always a dialogue with the singers, but that means the musicians must stay focused throughout the opera.

Q: Why should we care about a drunken, fat lecher? Is it because of a human desire for excess?

A: At the beginning you may hate his behavior, but when the third act begins you are almost on his side. It's because what he endures while trying to capture his youth is so sad, and that makes us relate to him. My dream is to convince people that, though told through the life of a comical character, this is a huge and important masterpiece of the history of opera.

Q: Were there new influences in this music?

A: When Verdi was young, studying with a country-village organist and spending every day in the theater, writing one or two operas a year, he had no time to study the German and Austrian repertory. Late in life, this country gentleman, living with his very cultured wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, was stimulated to study and produce great Italian works. But there are things in this opera that remind you of Mozart, Weber, Beethoven and German lieder.

Q: How do you think Verdi perceived the work?

A: We are in front of a man who is nearly 80 years old, who looks at jealousy, excess and love from a different perspective. He didn't want standard structure and struggled to follow all the drama and comedy in the character. There's not even an overture, because it just begins suddenly to show that it's a theater piece, as if Verdi is saying, "Let's go!" *

Send e-mail to dinardt@phillynews.com.

Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, 8 tonight and May 11, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday and May 13, $9-$100, 215-893-1999, www.operaphilly.org.