College age opera students usually have zero business singing Verdi. The music is too vocally demanding for voices with training wheels; the adult operatic melodrama is pitched somewhere between high drama (Macbeth, Othello) and high camp (a hunchbacked jester named Rigoletto; an Egyptian queen called Aida).

But Verdi it was for Portland State University’s annual opera production, which opened this past Monday. The composer’s big comedy “Falstaff,” based on Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor,” was opera program director Christine Meadows’ big gamble this year. The surprising thing is how well PSU pulled it off.

“Falstaff” is essentially a gut-busting laugh riot for some superlative buffo baritone, and PSU had the incredible luck of nabbing legendary Portland singer — and Metropolitan Opera regular — Richard Zeller for the role. Is Zeller a PSU student, or even a faculty member there? No. But he’s an Oregon native who was essaying the first Falstaff of his starry career in this production, and it was one hell of a performance: from pouring out an endless supply of burnished sound to prancing daintily around in a size XXXL bathrobe, Zeller looked to be having the time of his life.

While the raunchy aspects of his grabby, greedy character were underplayed (though some of the projected supertitles hinted at this — “This old flesh still squeezes out some sweetness for you,” Falstaff sings at one point), Zeller’s Falstaff had wit, humanity and even a surprising note of pathos, as when he sat down late in the opera to lament his declining physical and mental health. And he was good enough sport to let the PSU student singers stuff him, or attempt to, in an oversized hamper.

The student cast did well by challenging material under guest stage director Tito Capobianco’s guiding hand, all of them turning in healthily sung performances (Douglas Carl Schneider, principal coach) with character. Of the student principals, Anna Viemeister shone as a cunning Alice Ford, and her full lyric soprano opened out into the hall with real bloom. As her quick-change husband, baritone Michael Miersma added another showy performance to his resume, though this critic isn’t convinced his voice is yet ripe enough for opera. Students Jeremy Griffin (Pistola), Jennifer Davis (Nannetta) and Lucas Tannous (Fenton) all made admirable contributions.

Another of the night’s big surprises: the strong and ardent playing from the PSU student orchestra, conducted by resident orchestra director Ken Selden. The quality of the student orchestra — the strings especially — has improved out of all recognition under Selden’s guidance, and though Verdi's "Falstaff" imagines the world as one big cosmic joke, Selden's turning the PSU orchestra into a serious force of musical reckoning.

(PSU Opera's "Falstaff" plays through Sunday, April 19 @ St. Mary's Academy, 1615 SW 5th Avenue. Tickets/more info by calling 503-725-3307)