Fort Worth — Donizetti’s comic opera, Don Pasquale, took the stage at Bass Performance Hall on Saturday evening, part of the Fort Worth Opera Festival, and it also took the description of “comic” for all it was worth.
This is a riotous laugh-a-minute production, originally designed for the Arizona Opera, that is set in the Golden Age of Hollywood but most of the comic bits come straight out of Vaudeville. Chuck Hudson’s rapid-fire direction makes them happen in such a machine-gun manner that the audience supplied a constant laugh track worthy of the silliest 50’s sitcoms. But even the corniest bits worked as though we had never seen them — at least, not recently. However, by the end, we grew tired of all the cornball antics. No one slipped on a banana peel, but that was one of the only jokes omitted.
But overall, this is an excellent and completely entertaining updating.
It is a shtickfest of the first order. And why not? Pasquale is a silly opera anyway, loosely based on the stock characters developed in the 16th century Italian commedia dell'arte, which have lasted through the centuries, from Goldini to Punch and Judy to the Marx Brothers to Monty Python and beyond.
There is the silly old man, a hellion of a young wife who is in love with a younger man, and a facilitator of the action. The old man here is Don Pasquale, now portrayed as an aging silent film star whose career took a downward slide when talkies came into fashion. His stage makeup is meant to evoke the era of black-and-white film. In fact, occasionally he appears in authentic-looking film clips of the era that tell the story of his career’s demise from dashing leading man, a Ramon Novarro-ish sheik, to ridiculous sci-fi flops. Then it takes a disastrous turn as a director. Eventually, he accidently burnt the studio to the ground with a carelessly discarded cigar.
He asks his friend Dr. Malatesta, which roughly translates to “sick in the head” or “crazy,” to find him a young hotsy-totsy wife. He is also trying to marry off his nephew, Ernesto, to a bride of his choosing but Ernesto is in love with Norina and refuses. Because of this rebellion, he is about to be disinherited. Malatesta hatches a plot to fix things. He will pass off Norina as Sofronia and present her as a modest young girl straight from a convent. Pasquale falls for the trap and they are married instantly but the notary is a phony and really is Malatesta’s cousin. Sofronia (really Norina) immediately turns into a shrew and begins to wildly spend Pasquale’s fortune. He determines to get rid of her but she is in immovable force. The plotters set up a meeting between Ernesto and Sofronia that Pasquale can observer to light the fuse. Eventually, Malatesta says that the solution is to let Ernesto marry the girl he loves and, when it turns out to be his Sofronia, he is so glad to get rid of her that he generously forgives them all the shenanigans.
The singers in this production are first class, one and all.
Burak Bilgili is a wonderfully pompous Pasquale. His deep bass voice has all of the requisite flexibility and clear diction even in the lightning-quick patter songs. As Malatesta, baritone Andrew Wilkowske matches Bilgili’s patter and his voice is enough different so that it is never confusing who sings what. Tenor Ji-Min Park blasts his way through the role as though he was singing late Puccini. No doubt he has a remarkable tenor voice and should have a big career as a red-sauce Italianate tenor, but this role requires a more subtle approach.
There has been much anticipation to hear soprano Audrey Luna in her first assay of the role of Norina. She recently made history by singing the highest written note ever sung at the Metropolitan Opera. You can read my interview with her here. No matter how high your expectations are, she exceeds them all. She has a rich soprano that can easily leave coloratura roles and is probably headed to the lyric repertoire. But tosses off all of the florid coloratura passages with ease and also pops out some full-throated stratospheric high notes in a non-showoffy way. She offers the only serious moment when she impulsively slaps Pasquale, knocking him to the ground with his glasses missing. For a moment, her super-bitch façade crumbles and she lets the real Norina out with real regret.
The chorus is a delight. They were dressed as movie stars from the era, such as Jackie Gleason, Pat Boone, Desi and Lucy, and a spectacularly outfitted Carmen Miranda with her trademark fruit-basket hat. As prepared by Steven Carey, they sing with gusto and have fun with their lookalike roles. Kudos to costumer Kathleen Trott for creating all of the “stars” as well as some fab dresses for Norina.
Maestro Joe Illick does a fine job on the podium, setting quick tempi that keeps the action propelled forward at a stylistically correct breakneck pace. On opening night there were a few moments of confusion with the stage but these things almost always happen. The Fort Worth Symphony played beautifully, with a special shout out to the trumpet player. The orchestra was occasionally too loud in the first half but balance troubles were corrected in the second half.
This production and its cornball shenanigans are a lot of fun—with some great singing tossed in for good measure.