19 Mar 2012

Don Pasquale, San Diego

You can’t keep a good opera buffa down. And Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is about as good as opera buffa gets.

So here it is once again at San Diego Opera in its “spaghetti western” guise — the David Gately production that the opera company premiered in 2002. Happily for the opera company’s patrons it signals the end of their mourning period for poor, demented Salome and for the unfortunate crew in Moby-Dick. There’s nothing but rollicking operatic fun ahead for them.

DPSD1090.gifDanielle de Niese as Norina

Not having previously seen this production, the Western “shtick” promotions for the work - ladies in corsets and cowboys in bubble baths — stirred old puritanical impulses and elicited my deepest fears. Of course transpositions of time and place are common in opera productions. In fact it happened to this very opera, Don Pasquale, just a few years after its 1843 premiere at the Italian Theater in Paris. Donizetti and his librettist Giovanni Ruffini had set the work in contemporary time. “But,” says the old Grove Dictionary of Music, “the singers and audiences considered there was a little absurdity in prima donna, baritone and basso wearing the dress of every day life; and it was usual for the sake of picturesqueness in costume to put back the time of the incidents to the 18th century.”

I needn’t have worried about sinful excess. As in that early Don Pasquale, picturesqueness in costume and sets is primarily what this clever production is about. Six-guns and horses notwithstanding, the most admirable element of Gately’s production is the restraint he showed in not allowing wild West gags and horseplay to overpower the essential commedia dell’ arte formula at the heart of this opera buffa.

DPSD0483.gifCharles Castronovo as Ernesto

Don Pasquale was the last of the great opera buffas. At the heart of all of them were fairly formulaic commedia dell’arte plots, acted out by stock characters, behaving in satisfyingly predictable ways. There was usually a rich, old miser, a wily “dottore”, a shrewder-than-everyone servant. One or two of these had to be a bass or a baritone, who would likely sing a dizzying patter song. There were young lovers kept apart by some multifarious plot. She might be a soprano or a mezzo-soprano, but he most likely was a tenor. The plots were generally filled with intrigue involving love affairs, money, inheritances, mistaken identity and the like. It made no difference how complicated the machinations of the first two acts were. By the end of the third act everything will have worked out perfectly and audience and characters went home happy.

In Don Pasquale, miserly rich old Pasquale plans to marry Norina, a young and beautiful woman, who loves a young and penniless man, Ernesto, Pasquale’s nephew. Norina and Ernesto scheme with a wily dottore, Dr. Malatesta, to outwit Pasquale. Pasquale schemes with the same wily Dr. Malatesta to outwit Norina and Ernesto. Confusion. Who’s doing what with whom and where? But fear not! Don Pasquale is fooled into letting Norina go. Norina ends up with the Ernesto. Ernesto ends up with both Norina and Don Pasquale’s money. What could be better? The great music with it. Donizetti had an enormous gift for melody from the coloratura of emotional highs to lyrical, love-lorn laments. And better still, he wrote humor into his music - rollicking, rhythmic, playful music that can get you bouncing in your seat.

DPSD0894.gifJeff Mattsey as Dr. Malatesta, Danielle de Niese as Norina and Charles Castronovo as Ernesto

San Diego Opera was fortunate to have bass-baritone John Del Carlo as Don Pasquale. At this time in his career, Del Carlo is the very essence of Don Pasquale. His ringing voice and skilled acting allow us to see both the humor and pathos of the man. Tenor Charles Castronovo sang Ernesto, the young man in love with Norina, whom Pasquale wants to marry. Castronovo, whose sweet legato singing is always a pleasure, swaggered about appropriately in cowboy hat, chaps and boots. But I still can’t shake my recollection of him as the postman in Cat├ín’s Il Postino. Lyric soprano Danielle de Niese, who recently performed the role of Ariel in the Met’s new The Enchanted Island, made her San Diego Opera debut in the role Norina. She’s one of the new wave of slim, young, athletic sopranos with lovely voices, who can sing bel canto arias while sitting, standing, lying down, or leaping from bed to chair. Baritone Jeff Mattsey in the role Dr. Malatesta, didn’t seem quite warmed up in the first act, but got his voice in the saddle by the second. His “cheti, cheti” with Del Carlo delighted the audience. Marco Guidarini, making his conducting debut with the company, led an uneven performance. There were some lovely passages and some sprightly playing, but there were moments when the orchestra lacked the vivacity with which the singers were performing. The chorus sang its one big number splendidly.

There is spaghetti served and eaten in this opera, but that’s not where the term “spaghetti western” comes from. If you don’t know its origin, look it up. It adds an interesting twist to the production.

Estelle Gilson