In the early eighteenth century, opera buffa began to emerge as a separate entity, different from opera seria. Opera seria depicted kings and was designed to entertain the nobility. Opera buffa depicted ordinary people with more common problems and it was sung in the language of the audience. Opera buffa often used stock characters with which the audience was already familiar, such as those of the commedia dell’arte. Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale follows that tradition in making reference to familiar characters. Pasquale is a blustering Pantalone, Ernesto a lovesick Pierrot, Malatesta a scheming Scapino, and Norina a wily Columbina.
The atmosphere at the rehearsals for the opera’s Paris world premiere had been cool and dispassionate until the final dress rehearsal. It was then that Donizetti added a new piece for the tenor. Ernesto would sing the lyrical melody, “Com'è gentil” in the third act. The opera was wildly successful at its premiere in the Théâtre-Italien on January 3, 1843. Today, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), along with Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), are still the most popular operatic comedies.
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down and it seemed hard for the singers to play their scenes against it. Duane Schuler’s lighting added to the perception of incongruity.
Andrew Shore as the Don and Zachary Nelson as Dr. Malatesta created memorable characters, but had some difficulty in synchronizing their patter duet. The singer who actually held this performance together was Brenda Rae, the Norina. Having sung impressively as Vlada Vladimirescu in The Impresario and created the character of The Cook in Le Rossignol, she went on to show her versatility as a fascinating Norina. Her personality and musicality helped to keep this comedy on an even keel.
In the garden scene, Ernesto, Alek Shrader, sings while climbing a ladder to attach a wooden moon to a roof and it seemed like he was doing too many things at once. He is a fine young singer with a slender voice that should be heard to best advantage. Apprentice Calvin Griffin who has been a fine singing actor in the Young Artist Program at Arizona Opera this year, was most convincing as the Notary.
Conductor Corrado Rovaris played the score with crisp tempi that underlined its comic origins. Unfortunately, their playing tended to be quite loud and sometimes they drowned out the lower voiced singers. However, the performance was a comedic winner and the audience went home laughing and singing Donizetti’s memorable melodies.
Cast and production information:
Don Pasquale, Andrew Shore; Dr. Malatesta, Zachary Nelson; Ernesto, Alek Shrader; Norina, Brenda Rae; Notary, Calvin Griffin; Conductor, Corrado Rovaris; Director and Costume Designer, Laurent Pelly; Scenic Designer, Chantal Thomas; Lighting Designer, Duane Schuler; Chorus Master, Susanne Sheston