Santa Fe, N.M. — The first of the operas in my weeklong stay at Santa Fe Opera was Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, a comic opera that is truly funny but also a little pathetic. The plot of a well-off man of a certain age trying to find a young and beautiful bride is hardly new. It is not limited to the stage; such goings-on constantly leap out at us from the headlines of the daily papers—not to mention the scandal rags. Whether anyone says anything out loud or not, eyes do roll, even in our freewheeling times. It is this fact of human nature that makes the situation so ripe for satire. At least this time it isn’t his ward the old man is chasing, which would add an extra eye roll.
Pasquale is a common name all over Italy and comes from the Latin Paschalis, or Pascua in Italian, which means “Easter.” Perhaps Donizetti was making a sly joke naming his decidedly December character after the spring festival but, most probably, he picked it because it was the Italian equivalent of “Jones.”
Don Pasquale is masterpiece of opera buffa, a genre of comic opera that had its heyday in the 18th century. It features set numbers connected by recitatives and enables the singers to show off their impressive techniques. Pasquale could also be called the culmination of opera buffa because it faded away soon after. The romantic era had no patience for such frivolity. Nevertheless, the genre occasionally still turns up: a frequently cited contemporary example is Ernst Krenek's Schwergewicht.
The author of the libretto of Don Pasquale is a subject of some dispute, recently settled by research. It turns out to be by Giovanni Ruffini. However, Donizetti so dominated the creation of the libretto that Ruffini refused to put his name on it. Adding to the confusion, the final product was based on an earlier libretto by Angelo Anelli, which was in turn based on the characters, and favorite plot, of the commedia dell’arte story familiar to everyone at the time.
The Santa Fe production is by the creative team of Laurent Pelly (director and costume designer) and Chantal Thomas (scenic design), who brought us the very strange production of Verdi’s La Traviata last summer. Some loved it but others thought it was vulgar. Things turn out much better in Pasquale, which succeeds with nearly everyone.
It is set in modern times and, considering the plot is not dated at all, a leap forward in time is hardly noticeable—once you get used to it.
Costumes are utilitarian and inoffensive (except for Norina’s second act floozy dress left over from Traviata). The direction is clever and original and the stock characters are liberated from the shackles of the commedia and given real personalities. The set immediately says “this is not real,” with a cattywampus house that rotates to create the different scenes. A solid wall with shutters lines one side of the stage.
All four roles require acting singers with superior abilities in both areas. Usually, we get a decent Pasquale, an excessively perky Norina and stick-figure Ernesto and Malatesta. Not so here. The four do an excellent job of making their characters real, perfectly coinciding with directorial choices.
A befuddled but endearing Pasquale is created by the British basso-buffo Andrew Shore. He runs from elated to frustrated in seconds. We feel his pain when he has to toss his freeloading nephew (Ernesto) out of the house, even though (and perhaps because) he loves and cares about him. We share his dismay as a stack of excessive bills come in from luxuries purchased by his at-first-shy-then-suddenly-turned-vixen new wife. He does marvelous physical clowning—one bit with the easy chair is marvelous—and his timing is right on. Vocally, he is on point as well. His voice is rich and dark without any of the woofishness we usually hear in this role.
In an interesting idea from the director Pelly and scenic designer Thomas: when everything is topsy-turvy in Pasquale’s upset-applecart of a world, so is the set. His easy chair hangs from the floor (which is now ceiling) and the chandelier forlornly pokes up from the ceiling (now the floor). As the rotating house turns to reveal this scene, Shore is plastered against the wall as though the upset just happened. This “first sight” is one of the funniest moments in the show. But it is unsustainable onstage because all of the characters are right side up. Only film or animation could turn them upside down as well. Which brings up another point. As the house turns with the next scene, usually containing a visual joke, the audience laughs in waves as they see it. Those on the other side of the audience don’t get to see what is so funny until a few minutes later. Unavoidable, but regrettable.
Ernesto is portrayed by tenor Alek Shrader. He certainly has the right stuff for the role. He is good-looking and still boyish enough to pull off being the young shiftless nephew. In his first appearance, he enters in a bathrobe, tousle-headed and sleepy, looking like he is just rolling out of bed mid-afternoon. His physical comedy stunts are also very effective, such as one hysterical piece of business as he tries to carry two too many suitcases as he leaves Pasquale’s abode.
Vocally, he displays a clear and unaffected lyric tenor voice. His top notes are clear and focused. He is what we used to call a tenore di grazia or leggiero, because his voice doesn’t foreshadow a young spinto in waiting. But also like this ilk, the high notes can go really high—but those notes just above the break are sometimes over covered. Schrader is staying with this repertoire, written with his kind of voice in mind, and deserves the stellar career he is enjoying.
Doctor Malatesta (which means “headache”) is played by the easygoing baritone Zachary Nelson. He brought this same natural charm to the role of Figaro in last summer’s nearly perfect production of Mozart’s masterpiece.
Malatesta is not usually played as such a nice guy on what seems like an innocent charade turned wrong, but Nelson makes it work. He has a creamy baritone voice that has deeper bass-like overtones. He sings with great ease and naturalness and is an able actor.
This brings us to the Norina of Breda Rae. She made her Santa Fe Opera debut as Violetta in last summer’s ill-fated production of La Traviata. Vocally, she is superb—as she was last summer in the Verdi. All of Norina’s coloratura fireworks are tossed off with ease and she has an impressive trill. The voice is full and rich, which isn’t always the case in coloratura singers.
Rae’s portrayal leaves a crucial question unanswered. Is Norina the well-mannered nice girl that Ernesto loves, or is she really the scheming shrew who shreds the heart of the deluded but basically harmless Pasquale? You could not be faulted for coming away with the impression that she is the latter—and then some. The one time the thought that she might be coming down too hard on poor old Pasquale passes through her empty mind, she quickly dismisses it without a trace of irony or reflection.
Her Norina is self-centered, cruelly thoughtless and a flighty ditz. Her outrageous dance club-party girl outfit in the second act doesn’t help mitigate this impression. We never see the all-important “wink” that would let us know that it's all an act dreamed up by Malatesta. Agree or not with this directorial decision, Rae burns the stage vocally.
Conductor Corrado Rovaris keeps a barely perceptible forward pressure on the tempo that allows the opera to perk along without sounding rushed. The orchestra sounded marvelous and the all-too-brief appearances of the chorus impressed.
Clever and well sung, this production of Don Pasquale makes for a delightful evening of comic opera.
» Other reviews from the 2014 Santa Fe Opera season:
- Beethoven's Fidelio
- Bizet's Carmen
- Mozart's The Impresario and Stravinsky's Le Rossignol
- Huang Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat-sen