Love and Deceit in Ponnelle’s Venerable Don Pasquale

United StatesUnited States  Donizetti, Don Pasquale: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis, (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 8.12.2012 (JLZ)

Don Pasquale: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Norina: Marlis Petersen
Ernesto: René Barbera
Malatesta: Corey Crider

Conductor: Stephen Lord
Director: Sir Thomas Allen
Designer: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Lighting Designer: Christine Binder

Familiar to Lyric audiences from past seasons, the current production of Donizetti’s comic opera Don Pasquale is effective both musically and dramatically. With the venerable set design by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle for Covent Garden (currently owned by the Dallas Opera) and stage direction by the eminent bass Sir Thomas Allen, Lyric presents the opera masterfully. The familiar story of deception and deceit plays to the humorous side of peratic convention in telling the story of the scheming uncle, Don Pasquale. The plot ignites when Pasquale disinherits his nephew, Ernesto, who refuses to marry the woman his uncle has in mind for him. Pasquale decides to get married himself, to a suitable bride, and after his friend Malatesta is recruited to help, he persuades Ernesto’s beloved Norina to disguise herself (as a woman called Sofronia), but as her demanding personality increasingly repulses Pasquale, her attractiveness pales. In the end all things are made right, with lessons about the dangers of meddling across generations in love and marriage.

The principals are uniformly strong, both individually and together. As Norina/Sofronia, Marlis Petersen was captivating in her nuanced performance. Her first-act aria “So anch’io la virtù” captured the bel canto elements of the piece beautifully, and she executed the florid passages with clarity and grace. Her command of the role surged later in the opera, when her musical asides in the second-act trio “Fresca uscita di convento” brought out the Sofronia persona, while retaining her identity as Norina. And her third-act duet with D’Arcangelo was a tour-de-force, with intensity matching seamless musical delivery.

As the title character, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo gave a full-bodied portrayal. He’s in the prime of his career, and can deliver the part with vigor and enthusiasm. His first-act arietta “Un foco insolito mi sento addosso” set the tone for his ultimately empty idealism. The latter emerges in the second-act trio “Fresca uscita,” in which Pasquale first meets Sofronia with a clue about the prank being played on him.

René Barbera, an alumnus of the Ryan Opera Center, was impressive with his command of the role of Ernesto. Range and projection seem easily, and he delivered each of his arias with zeal. At times his volume was somewhat intense, with the second-act “Cercherò lontana terra” lacking some of the subtleties he gave earlier in “Sogna mave e casto.” The latter was impressive for the appealing sound and clear projection in some of the softer passages. The final-act serenade “Com’è gentil” was nicely rendered, and enhanced the scene’s romance.

As Malatesta, Baritone Corey Crider also gave a well-rounded performance—distinctive, with his rich, appealing sound and clear articulation. His opening aria “Bella siccome un angelo,” was fine, and he was equally reliable in the ensembles. His interaction with Petersen in the second act was a model intersection of comic timing and musical taste, and the duet with Pasquale, “Cheti, cheti,” was equally strong.

All in all, though it’s difficult not to like Don Pasquale, this production made it even more appealing with its traditional set, but in the end the performances drew the rapt audience’s attention. And since it’s hard to miss an opportunity with a cast this strong, it is no surprise that Lyric Opera recently used this production for its special “Popcorn and Pasquale” series, to introduce young audiences to the genre.


James L. Zychowicz