Improve on Shakespeare? Heresy! You gotta be kidding! Well, maybe not quite. Passages of non-Shakespearean doggerel regularly get chopped from stagings of Macbeth. It's a rare production of Hamlet these days that hasn't been either rearranged or substantially cut or both. And of course Shakespearean adaptations have been around since the 17th century. Like, believe it or not, Lear with a happy ending.

So it's not too surprising that the greatest bourgeois writer of the Renaissance should have been taken in hand by the greatest bourgeois composer of the 19th century. Verdi had a thing for Shakespeare, visible in the relatively early opera, Macbeth, as well as in sketches for another project, King Lear, that didn't materialize. But the ripest fruits of Verdi's infatuation with the English writer only happened in his later years, when composer and writer Arrigo Boito cajoled Verdi into a setting of Othello. And this gets us back to my opening remark.

For plenty of people, as a theatrical event Verdi's opera trumps the play. It's more direct, better-focused, faster-moving and—yes—more believable. What's lost in the poetry is made up for in the astonishing musical invention. Still, even if you dispute this iconoclastic judgement, there's not much doubt about the 80-year-old Verdi's next and final opera, again a collaboration with Boito: that's Falstaff.

The Merry Wives of Windsor ranks pretty low as a Shakespearean comedy, with a confusing plot plus a relatively dull Falstaff as hero. Verdi and Boito saw their opportunity, simplified the action, added brilliant bits from the two Henry IV plays and came up with a 24-carat, silk purse masterpiece. Stand aside, Mr. Shakespeare: a star is born.

WH Auden, himself a librettist of note, had no doubts. When delivering a famous series of lectures on Shakespeare at the New School—one play per talk—he befuddled his audience for the Merry Wives lecture by simply turning on the gramophone and playing them Verdi's Falstaff instead. He made his point.

The production of Verdi's final opera that opened the Santa Fe Opera's 52nd season last week made some fine points, too, but it's still an uneven show. Conductor Paolo Arrivabeni in his American debut made the best possible case for the notion that the orchestra is Falstaff's main character. Never mind the murderous challenges Verdi's score presents to its players; SFO's orchestra met them. Arrivabeni delivered a fleet, transparent reading, crisply detailed and lovingly shaped, with a brightness and flexibility that made the impossible seem easy.

French baritone Laurent Naouri, the Falstaff, is no stranger to Santa Fe, having made an oily Escamillo for the SFO in 2006. His fat knight is still a work-in-progress, well-sung but not entirely convincing, more the lesser figure of Merry Wives than the enormous, brilliantly conceived, epic hero-villain of Henry IV, Parts One and Two.

 Granted, it's hard to forget Thomas Stewart who embodied the role here in 1975 and 1977, but he'd had Wotan and Hans Sachs under his belt by then, and that helped him define the multi-dimensional, in every way larger than life figure of Shakespeare's imagination. Naouri's Falstaff comes across, successfully enough, as an energetic scamp, a fat and rascally great-uncle. But he lacks scale and his impersonation isn't helped by a grotesque make-up job.

Franco Pomponi makes a powerful impression as Ford, big-voiced with an imposing stage presence. Claire Rutter and Kelley O'Connor as the merry wives and especially Nancy Maultsby as Mistress Quickly sing with confident vivacity. Laura Giordano's Nannetta projects youthful charm and Norman Reinhardt is her suitable swain.

In terms of musical preparation and stage movement, each act's finale presents daunting difficulties: lots of notes and a crowded stage filled with activity on several levels. Arrivabeni's singers and orchestra nail the notes. Despite trying hard, director Kevin Newbury doesn't always make the action work. At times the staging impinges upon the music, as at the climax of the great orchestral trill concluding Falstaff's ode to sherry-sack. And the staging of the final, magnificent ensemble piece, "All the World's a Joke" is just plain lame.

This is one of those wonderful passages, like the conclusions of Don Giovanni and The Rake's Progress, where the singers break through the fourth wall to establish a direct, vital connection with the audience. But forget eye contact here. It's just a teachable moment for the nine sweet little kids who line the front of the stage.

 Allen Moyer's sets tend toward the bleak and budget-conscious but work after a fashion. Until the last scene, that is. The verdurous gloom and mystery of Windsor Forest, with the symbolic majesty of Herne's oak itself, have vanished, leaving only a barren, decaying hulk of a long-fallen tree-trunk behind. That's a scenic joke, and, alas, a bad one.

9 pm Wednesday July 2 and Saturday, July 5
Various times and dates through Aug. 23, $26-$180

Santa Fe Opera
Hwys. 84/285,
7 miles north of Santa Fe