Boffo opera buffa: In Series’ ‘Don Pasquale’ does La-La Land

Witty, English language update to Gaetano Donizetti’s classic comic opera brightens the GALA Hispanic Theatre stage for one more weekend.

L-R: Beth Rubens, Elliot Matheny, Garret Matthews, Chris Herman, Suzanne Lane in the In Series production of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale." Photo Credit: Angelisa Gillyard for the In Series.

WASHINGTON, March 20, 2017 – The In Series’ latest opera production, Gaetano Donizetti’s 1843 comic gem “Don Pasquale,” opened with a splash to a full house this Saturday past at Washington’s GALA Hispanic Theatre.

The current production benefits from a liberal application the Series’ by now virtually patented formula. Their often magical bag of theatrical and musical tricks include the updating of characters and plots to fit surprisingly well into easily recognizable contemporary situations and social customs.

Better yet, the Series also possesses an uncanny knack for translating those generally Italian, German or French opera librettos into contemporary (and often cheeky) contemporary American English, removing the language barrier for experienced and newly curious opera goers alike.

Ernesto (David Wolff) and Norina (Suzanne Lane) are Donizetti’s (hilariously) star-crossed lovers. Photo credit: Angelisa Gillyard for the In Series.

These In Series trademarked hallmarks work well in the current production, which updates Donizetti’s classic comic confection, originally set in the 19th (or perhaps the late 18th) century, to the music and entertainment scene in contemporary Los Angeles.

A goodly measure of the original “Don Pasquale’s” success—it has rarely been out of the performing opera repertoire since its premiere—is due to the composer’s own clever tweaking and contemporizing of Giovanni Ruffini’s opera buffa libretto, itself based on an earlier 1810 opera.

A key element of an enjoyable opera buffa is its use of typically comedic stock characters, which, for an Italian composer like Donizetti, would mean drawing on the time-honored traditions of commedia dell’arte characters.

A typical drama in that tradition might follow the ridiculous antics of a crotchety, wealthy old man (Pantalone) who intends to thwart a penniless young lover, servant (Pierrot, or perhaps Harlequin) or nephew by marrying the young gent’s pretty girlfriend (Columbina)—because he can. But the resourceful young lovers, sometimes with the aid of an associate (like the trickster Scapino), always manage to launch a successful plot to trick the old coot and have their way.

Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” follows this tried and true comic formula almost by the book. The title character, Don Pasquale, is the opera’s Pantalone figure, a rich old man who’s furious over his young nephew Ernesto’s refusal to marry an unappealing older woman Pasquale’s chosen for him.

Pasquale’s vengeful solution? He’ll find a comely young bride for himself, marry her, and sign over his fortune to his new wife while disinheriting the essentially penniless Ernesto.

Unfortunately for Pasquale, he doesn’t anticipate the treachery of his physician and supposed fellow conspirator, Dr. Maletasta, who’s secretly Ernesto’s friend. Disguising Ernesto’s lower class but feisty girlfriend Norina as his own, guaranteed-to-be compliant sister, Maletasta saddles Pasquale with a “meek” bride who soon emerges as a holy, spendthrift terror.

Hilarity ensues, and the opera’s absurd plot twists ultimately lead us to a predictable but happy ending. Except, of course, for Pasquale.

Aging Motown Era rocker Don Pasquale (Terry Eberhardt) has decided to disinherit his slacker-millennial nephew Ernesto (David Wolff), who doesn’t like the idea. Photo credit: Angelisa Gillyard for the In Series.

The In Series’ “Don Pasquale” update dusts off Donizetti’s stock characters and plunks them down into the contemporary Hollywood/LA music scene, transforming Pasquale himself (Terry Eberhardt) into an aging rock star who is desperately trying to recapture his glory days not only in music but in love.

Pasquale seeks the matchmaking counsel of his guru/career adviser Malatesta (Raymond Ghattas), who promptly recommends his allegedly convent-educated “sister,” disguised aspiring screenwriter Norina (Suzanne Lane) as a suitable bride, much to the bitter disappointment of Pasquale’s already disinherited nephew, a millennial slacker and passable musician named Ernesto (David Wolff).

Malatesta clues Ernesto in on his little game, which comes to a head after Norina’s sham marriage to Pasquale, during which procedure he signs over his inheritance to her. At this point, Pasquale’s meek-and-mild bride transforms into an imperious spendthrift heading the story and the characters into a hilarious albeit predictable conclusion.

“Pasquale’s” continued popularity is likely due as much to its comic theatricality as it is to Donizetti’s always exquisite music. For this reason, a successful production needs to employ a cast of singers that knows how to deliver the composer’s wonderful music while at the same time possessing the comic and slapstick acting chops that make this show so much fun.

The cast of this production had the comedy part almost perfect. The singing was almost as good, though at times not quite.

Unquestionably the star of this show, at least on opening night, was soprano Suzanne Lane who sang the role of Norina. Boasting a mop of hair that made her look a bit like Little Orphan Annie, Ms. Lane owned every scene in which she appeared, playing (and singing) Norina like a short but potent human dynamo, carrying the entire production relentlessly forward into its madcap finale.

As the opera’s titular character, Don Pasquale, bass Terry Eberhardt was the very personification of an aging, 1960s-style Motown superstar, excessive bling, supersized Afro wig and all. Mr. Eberhardt’s comic chops were impeccable and you could see that he was having immense fun with his role. But his singing was just as excellent and always in character as well.

As the other characters who get top billing in this opera—Malatesta and Ernesto—baritone Raymond Ghattas and tenor David Wolff seemed a bit less certain on opening night. Like Ms. Lane and Mr. Eberhardt, both singer-actors had the comedy part down nicely.

That was particularly true for Mr. Wolff, whose Ernesto spent much of his time paying more attention to what he was listening to on his smartphone than what he was hearing on stage. But vocally, for much of the first half of the evening, Mr. Wolff seemed to be having issues with his intonation, with his voice even briefly skipping out at one point. Whatever the case, however, he seemed to be much stronger in the opera’s second stanza.

Mr. Ghattas’ issue was a bit subtler. He has a tremendous, authoritative baritone voice, and his solo moments in the opera were impressive throughout. But at points, particularly in the ensembles, he seemed to pull back and vaguely lip-synch, perhaps uncertain of the newly translated English words and verses, which was a little disconcerting.

Elsewhere, the production’s small chorus—Beth Rubens, Garrett Matthews, Chris Herman and Elliot Matheny—was terrific, adding the right slapstick moves and double takes at the right moments while singing robustly and with remarkable precision every time they had the opportunity.

The production’s reduced musical score conducted by music director Stanley Thurston, featuring the In Series’ string quartet plus pianist Joseph Walsh, provided a fine backdrop for the singers. Elizabeth Pringle’s crisp, economical stage direction kept things moving along, a must for this type of opera.

And a special hat tip goes—as it so often does in these productions—to Bari Biern who managed to turn out a terrific (and occasionally risqué), accessible, contemporary English libretto for this production, including a notable profusion of witty, rhyming couplets. Brava!

Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half out of four stars)

Operas, alas, are a bit expensive to stage, so you’ll only have two more chances to see this enjoyable production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”: Friday, March 24 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 26 at 2:30 p.m. (matinee). Performances (with helpful English surtitles) all take place at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20010. For tickets and information, visit the In Series website. Or head directly for the site’s “Don Pasquale” link.

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