Randy Behavior and Bourgeois Bad Manners in Don Pasquale

United StatesUnited States Donizetti, Don Pasquale: Soloists of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Omer Ben Seadia (stage director), Mark Gibson (conductor), CCM Corbett Auditorium, Cincinnati, OH. 4.3.2014 (RDA)

Of all of Donizetti’s operas, the one I’m the fondest of is a creation of the composer-turned-librettist with some marginal editorial assists from Giovanni Ruffini and Angelo Anelli. Don Pasquale is a delicious concoction filled with spirited patter tunes and long-lined bel canto melodies. Nothing sounds forced, no boiler plate music plagues it. It is as perfect a comic opera as the best of its era.

In 1843 Donizetti was in demand and at the top of his game, and the Rome premiere of Don Pasquale was hugely successful. Luigi Lablache sang the title role in a dream cast with Giulia Grisi as Norina, Giovanni Matteo Mario as Ernesto and Antonio Tamburini as Dr. Malatesta.

The music in this Donizetti opera (his 64th!) does not call for large voices in the Lucia/La Favorita/Maria Stuarda vein—rather, lightness and comic nimbleness. Everybody in this cast gets to do patter singing, never better and funnier than in the “Cheti cheti” duet for the bass and the baritone before the garden scene. Each of the four principals sings at least one aria and a duet with one of his fellow cast members. And then, the mostly silent chorus is given a juicy number at the halfway mark.

The CCM cast is A-to-Z up to the task at hand, with Charles (Zak) Owen, a hugely promising young lyric bass in his early 20’s, playing the Don with assuredness and delicacy. In performances full of nice singing and devoid of buffo buffoonery, Conor McDonald is a fine Malatesta, Alec Carlson a convincing Ernesto, and Summer Hassan a full-voiced Adina.

In her main-stage directorial debut, Israeli director Omer Ben Seadia leads her cast with a full command of the style that infuses the spirit of Donizetti’s masterpiece. In her production there’s little shtick, and hardly any gratuitous push for laughs. Ms. Sedia’s comedic conceits are solidly anchored in the raucous Italian commedia tradition of randy behavior and bourgeois bad manners that Carlo Goldoni perfected.

The production is handsome and the opera is allowed to tell its story without any unwelcome design or directorial decorations. Donizetti calls for Rome and Ben Seadia and her design team give him mid-19th-century Rome, setting the story in a series of interiors and exteriors, designed by Tom Umfid to look both tacky and funny. Angelina Vyushkova manages in act two to give us “…a gentle mid-April night under a blue sky and an unveiled moon,” just as Donizetti’s Ernesto sings in his nocturnal serenade. The singers are perfectly costumed by Regina Truhart and beautifully made up, coiffed and bewigged by Amy E. Whitaker.

The irreplaceable Mark Gibson leads the orchestra, principals and chorus with panache and a complete understanding of bel canto style, with brisk tempi and a good balance between stage and pit and overall clarity. Altogether this is an imaginative production of an opera that does not come around as often as it deserves, certainly not in a period-perfect staging as this one.

Two of the cast members go from this final production of the 2013-2014 CCM season, to make their professional debuts with regional operas around the country. Robin Guarino, brilliantly manages to combine a successful national and international career as a stage director with her intensive commitment to CCM and to the training of the next generation of opera stars.

Rafael de Acha

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