Who is Falstaff? What is he?

The answers are as various as the number of baritones who have sung the part in Verdi's last opera. Roberto de Candia added his gloss on the part Wednesday in the Opera Company of Philadelphia's jaunty Falstaff opening at the Academy of Music.

Singers have made the fat knight a tragic figure, a buffoon, a foggy drunkard, a sly opportunist - and a thousand shadings besides. De Candia found a middle ground - not the swaggering image of crudeness, but a man living his own autumnal fantasy without too much seriousness and with a lot of remembered dance steps to hurry him on his path to ridicule. His pursuit of Alice Ford and Meg Page was touched with doubt even as he clutched and hoped.

Because this was a laughable being, even to himself, De Candia's first-act soliloquy on honor was more dissimulation than vision into his own shabby soul. This view, however, enabled the baritone to sing the part (with glassy articulation) rather than shout it or push it out of shape in search of effect. He sang his way from his dream world to that final realization that the world is a running joke and its characters emotionally weightless.

He was in unusually good company. Christine Goerke's bold, expressive singing created an exuberant Alice, leader of the successful female schemers. She was the center of all of her scenes, blending and soaring as she shaped the role. She'll sing Norma here next year, and her presence in this comedy sharpened anticipation.

Director Robert Driver built a complex, fast-moving comedy, full of visual jokes and high energy. His lovers were no more serious than were the comics Caius, Bardolph and Pistol. His Mistress Quickly, contralto Meredith Arwady, showed a comic skill to match her often powerful low range. It was almost baritone-to-baritone in her scenes with Falstaff, her voice keeping its color and clarity into a range few women can manage.

Newcomer Evelyn Pollack created a witty Nanetta, but held attention with her floating pianissimo and graceful phrasing. Her lover, Fenton, was not quite a match, yet Jesus Garcia kept his part secure and worth hearing. Baritone Mark Stone created a forceful Ford, his singing robust, shaded and dramatically important throughout.

The opera starts and stops with the orchestra. This score, full of jokes, wonders and intricacies, emerged with most of its details happily in place. Conductor Corrado Rovaris' pacing and quickness to find the dramatic detail lifted the entire production. The closing fugue, with the full cast weaving lines, capped his reading. The end of the fugue found the cast pointing to the audience, making them buffoons to match those on stage.

Falstaff

Opera by Giuseppe Verdi; libretto by Arrigo Boito. Presented by the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

Conductor, Corrado Rovaris; directed by Robert Driver; sets by Paul Shortt; lighting by Drew Billiau; wigs and makeup, Tom Watson; chorus master, Elizabeth Braden

Cast: Mark Panuccio (Dr. Caius),

Roberto de Candia (Sir John Falstaff), Steven Cole (Bardolph), Matthew Rose (Pistol) Elizabeth de Shong (Meg Page), Christine Goerke (Alice Ford), Meredith Arwady (Mistress Quickly), Evelyn Pollock (Nannetta), Mark Stone (Ford), Jesus Garcia (Stone Fenton)

Playing at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust, today, May 6, 9, 11, 13. Information: 215-893-1999.EndText