Move over Glee, the original musical situation comedies were on the stage way before they hit the HD screen.
Lyric Opera Chicago presents Don Pasquale, a delightful and brilliantly composed dramma buffa (literally ‘funny play’) by the prolific Gaetano Donizetti. With an excellent performance, a (relatively) light-hearted story, and gorgeous staging, Don Pasquale has a look and feel that even Donizetti himself would recognize and celebrate.
Don Pasquale follows the tale of an aging man so disappointed in his nephew Ernesto's intent to marry his true love (the beautiful but wily Norina) over the girl Pasquale picks that he disowns Ernesto. Pasquale then approaches his friend Malatesta to help him find a bride so he can father his own heir. Malatesta presents his lovely yet very conservative sister 'Sofrinia'. Behind the scenes, Malatesta and Norina contrive a plan to trick Pasquale into a fake marriage to "teach him a lesson", eventually including Ernesto in their scheme. Norina disguises herself as 'Sofrinia', but when the marriage contract is signed she goes from demure to demanding, forcing Pasquale to lament his commitment and look for ways to break the contract. He eventually learns he has been pranked and is so relieved to be not actually married to Norina that he grants his blessing on the young couple and all learn the valuable lesson, which from the finale (La morale in tutto questo) seems to indicate “older men should not marry”.
Donizetti nearly defines the Italian bel canto style, articulated by clean and bright timbres, versatile vocalizations, and graceful phrasings. He was an extremely prolific composer, penning nearly seventy operas in his career from tragedies to romantic comedies. Of course romance in those days always involved a death of one of the lovers, and a tragedy involved everyone dying, so truly comic operas involved mere cruel humiliation and trickery committed on a brash but undeserving character. Such was the case in the Italian theater style of comedia del’arte. Many opera scholars compare Don Pasquale to the genre, whose characters are absolutely archetypical, though it lacks some of the genre’s more slapstick qualities.
The world renowned bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo returns to Lyric to helm the title role, wonderfully communicating the forceful fragility of an aging wannabe lothario out in the game way past his prime. To discover that D’Arcangelo is actually a dark-haired world renowned opera heartthrob only enhances my appreciation for his portrayal of the blustering yet ineffectual Pasquale, who is so easily tricked by a close friend that one feels a deep sympathy for his character.
Ryan Center alum and rising tenor Rene Barbera was stunning as Ernesto with a crystal timbre and delicate yet passionate tone, which culminated in the outstanding duet in Act III with Norina, played by the celebrated and incredibly talented soprano Marlis Petersen. Don Pasquale could not have been successful without the fantastic chemistry between Norina and Malatesta (baritone Corey Crider). Petersen and Crider had such a natural connection and a wonderful vocal balance that it almost seemed there was some history between the two characters. Indeed, the longest ensemble of the opera occurs in Act II where Norina and Malatesta devise the scheme against Pasquale, resulting in some of the finest musical moments in the opera.
Originally owned by Covent Garden in London and now owned by the Dallas Opera, the set for Don Pasquale is both remarkably simple and wonderfully elaborate. From the stately and gigantic chandeliers in the great room of an Italian estate to the whimsical Italian villa rooftop to the lovely stone statues in the moonlit garden, each set is beautiful and intricate, allowing for full immersion into another world. One of the funniest and confounding moments of the opera was when the curtain rose on an elderly man in front of another curtain, cranking then playing a victrola while the orchestra plays, then silently standing and walking off stage as the second curtain rises. A wonderfully absurd splash on an already hilarious staging.
While perhaps not the most ‘funny’ outcome in opera, Don Pasquale has some delightful moments and spectacular performances. A great opera that will captivate novice and expert audiences alike.
Don Pasquale will be performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago from November 25 through December 15. For tickets and show times visit www.lyricopera.org. All images by Dan Rest