SANTA FE, N.M.,August 11, 2014 – Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), famed for his bel canto tragic operas like “Anna Bolena” and “Lucia di Lammermoor,” has been a regular presence in opera houses around the world for over 175 years. True, of the dozens of opera he composed over his relatively short lifespan, perhaps only ten of them or so remain in regular circulation today. That said, they remain big box office draws to this day.
While Donizetti’s tragic operas generally contain his most exquisite vocal music, I’ve always been drawn to his comedies, specifically the endlessly amusing “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love”), which received a delightful performance this past spring by the Washington National Opera; “La fille du regiment” (“The Daughter of the Regiment”); and “Don Pasquale,” the composer’s 1843 comic gem. The latter is enjoying one of its best performances ever in the Santa Fe Opera’s current production.
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, including its stock 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 leaving him spluttering and feeling more than foolish in their wake.
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 (Pierrot’s) refusal to marry the 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 (Scapino), who’s secretly Ernesto’s friend. Disguising Ernesto’s lower class but feisty girlfriend Norina (Columbina) as his own and allegedly guaranteed-to-be compliant sister, Maletasta saddles the scheming Pasquale with a bride who soon emerges as a holy terror.
Hilarity ensues, and the opera’s absurd plot twists ultimately lead us to a predictable but happy ending. Except, of course, for Pasquale.
The Santa Fe Opera’s refreshing new co-production (with the San Francisco Opera and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu) of “Don Pasquale” dusts off Donizetti’s re-imagined stock characters and plunks them down, set-wise and costume-wise, somewhere in time between 1930 and 1960.
Chantal Thomas’ clever set design adds considerably to the nonsensical look and feel of this jolly production. Pasquale’s house is a skinflinty, skewed box that rotates, depending on the opera’s needs, on a center stage turntable. Its doors and absent front wall serve at various times for frantic entrances and exists that draw heavily on the traditions of French farce.
When the trap is sprung and the tables turned on Pasquale in the opera’s second stanza, his house flips its metaphorical lid, finding the old man’s easy-chair hanging upside down from the ceiling and his chandelier, in turn, bolted to the floor with all the doors hanging from the ceiling as well. It’s quite enough to drive an old guy even battier than he already is.
With Donizetti’s music and lyrics and Chantal Thomas’ topsy-turvy set in place, all the Santa Fe Opera needed to do was find the right singers for this production. And indeed, that’s exactly what they did, signing up a cast whose comic acting skills equaled and at times almost exceeded their considerable vocal mastery.
Under Laurent Pelly’s inventive stage direction—controlled mayhem, really—the Santa Fe Opera’s cast and chorus made the magic happen, turning this “Don Pasquale” into the funniest, craziest and yes, one of the best sung productions of this opera we can ever recall attending.
At the top of the heap is baritone Andrew Shore, who pulled off a veritable mind-meld with the character of Don Pasquale. As the first act began, the very sight of Mr. Shore’s cranky old Midas evoked a smile, and things only got better as the cantankerous old dog proved worse than his bite. Acting-wise, his was simply a masterful performance.
But even better, Mr. Shore excelled in the vocal realm as well. Engineering brittle, at times almost pathetic contempt for humanity into nearly every phrase, he was particularly impressive in Donizetti’s wicked, rapid-fire patter songs, executing every one with near perfection.
Building on the challenges offered by Mr. Shore’s Don Pasquale, equally feisty soprano Brenda Rae breathed fire and gumption into her quirky interpretation of Norinda. When we first meet her in Act I, she’s a little down in the dumps and a bit too far into a bottle of cheap wine, casually emphasizing the point with a few comic moves reminiscent of Carol Burnett in her prime.
But when Maletasta unveils his clever plot to Ms. Rae’s skeptical Norinda, she lights up with a look of transcendent malice, instantly convincing us that the game is indeed afoot.
Norinda’s eventual transformation, as she morphs from an alleged innocent direct from the convent into a youthful harridan from hell—after Pasquale has signed the marriage contract, of course—hits the old man like a thunderclap. We’re off and running at that point, as this oddest of odd couples squares off in mortal marital combat. For the rest of the opera, the interplay between Ms. Rae’s Norinda and Mr. Shore’s Pasquale is quite simply a comic sensation.
Ms. Rae drives her point home with her substantial but well-controlled soprano instrument. Her approach is at times a bit forceful for an opera from the bel canto era. But in the context of this clever production, bigger-than-life is clearly what’s called for and Ms. Rae delivers every time.
Baritone Zachary Nelson created a suave but coolly confident Maletasta for this production, setting Pasquale up perfectly for the fall on one hand while liberating Norinda to do her worst on the other.
Both Mr. Nelson and tenor Alek Shrader (Ernesto) at times almost functioned as straight men for the not-exactly-dynamic-duo of Norinda and Pasquale as their ever-escalating squabbles built to a climax.
For his part, Mr. Shrader demonstrated a different kind of comic touch, blundering cluelessly from scene to scene until he finally gets filled in on the Maletasta-Norinda plot. The dazed innocence of Mr. Shrader’s Ernesto suddenly blossoms when he’s finally in on the joke, and his vocal lines take on greater confidence from that point on.
In addition to the fine ensemble performance of the principles, the Santa Fe Opera’s chorus was also sprightly and spot on at every point.
Rounding out this exceptional evening of comic opera was a rousing performance by the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra under the baton of Corrado Rovaris who gave a rousing, almost late-Romantic spin to Donizetti’s already rich orchestration.
In short, there was really nothing not to like in the company’s “Don Pasquale.” Visually kooky, viscerally funny, shot through with sprightly tunes sung by a cast that was clearly enjoying every moment as they worked together, this was as great a production of Donizetti’s comic classic as you’re ever likely to get.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
Santa Fe Opera’s production of “Don Pasquale” runs through August 22. For tickets and information visit the Santa Fe Opera’s web site.