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Vol. LXIV, No. 29
 
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
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Music/Theater

Opera New Jersey’s Production of “Don Pasquale” Brings Humorous Absurdity to the Stage

Nancy Plum

Composer Gaetano Donizetti was the Jerry Bruckheimer of the early 19th century, but instead of producing crime dramas for television, Donizetti composed operas — more than 70 in all. Like his fellow composer Guiseppe Verdi, Donizetti created to suit the tastes of the European public, who came to the opera strictly for light entertainment.

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale came from a genre of comic opera with few characters, but heavy on melodies, snappy rhythms and the “patter” singing later exploited so well by Gilbert and Sullivan. Premiered in 1843, Don Pasquale has traditionally been difficult to evenly cast — the lead character is a basso buffo, a vocal role which calls for a wide bass range combined with comedic talent, and the other singers must be just as strong. With only four principal characters, Don Pasquale requires performers who are able to both carry the stage themselves and fit into an ensemble as tight as a fast-moving game of cards.

Opera New Jersey took on this tricky work this past Saturday night as the second production of its summer season. In bringing the 19th century farce to life in the Berlind Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Center, Opera New Jersey brought together a well-balanced cast in voice, acting, and comic timing to capture the true mission of Donizetti’s operas — pure entertainment. The more intimate setting of the Berlind Theatre (especially the ability to see the orchestra players close up) added to the connection between the audience and the stage.

Conductor Mark Laycock led an ensemble of New Jersey Symphony musicians in an overture which was subtle and well-nuanced with Italianate rubato and flavor. Principal cellist Jonathan Spitz provided the first great Donizetti tune, joined in duet by bassoonist Robert Wagner. A delicately restrained horn solo by Eva Conti and well-contained timpani playing by Randall Hicks added to the overture’s spirited tone of lightness. With players in every nook and corner of the Berlind pit, Mr. Laycock did an impressive job keeping the sound from becoming too overpowering.

“Don Pasquale” will continue its run on Sunday, July 25 at 2 p.m., Friday, July 30 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, August 1 at 7 p.m. For information call (609) 258-2787.

A Victorian lay-out set the opera’s time period in the early 20th century (although the supertitled translation of the Italian was considerably more updated) and the stage was immediately commandeered by bass Steven Condy, who would easily have stepped out of an episode of The Honeymooners in his animated expressions and humorous overdramatic gestures. The typically ludicrous 19th century comic opera plot unfolded, with Don Pasquale (Mr. Condy) determined to find a wife. The plot thickened with the aid of Dr. Malatesta (perhaps a linguistic pun on Donizetti’s part?), sung by baritone Liam Bonner. Mr. Bonner’s well-projected voice rang through his first aria, “Bella siccomme un angelo,” and his voice was well matched with that of Mr. Condy. Convincingly persuasive, Malatesta nonetheless gave the impression that he could slither away at any time.

Pasquale’s nephew, Ernesto, was also vying for a bride, and historically has been played by a lyric tenor. Brian Anderson was right out of Gatsby in his portrayal of this character, with a light and buoyant voice which one could imagine singing under any window to his beloved. Mr. Anderson was a good contrast to the two bass-baritones; his aria about the “sweet dreams of youth” was a further confirmation that there are great tunes in this opera.

The fourth character in the farce was the young bride herself, sung by soprano Ava Pine. With looks reminding the audience of Meryl Streep, Ms. Pine’s performance of the scheming bride suggested that maybe the devil doesn’t wear Prada, but rather connives to get her way no matter what, with a free and easy vocal way of doing it. Ms. Pine played her character as a true 1920’s flapper; one could see her pulling a pack of cigarettes from her garter to go along with her underhanded and devious conversation. This role required tremendous flexibility of voice, and Ms. Pine tossed off the coloratura passages effortlessly, switching to become the vocal killer shrew against Don Pasquale with no trouble.

Opera New Jersey drew on its roster of Studio Artists for baritone Wesley Landry, who sang the role of a notary creating further chaos in the story. A chorus of servants, prepared by Keith Chambers, made a brief but effective appearance in the third act, commenting on the action.

In the comic operas of such composers as Rossini and Donizetti, the ensemble collaboration and musical dialog are key to the success of the production. Mr. Condy and Mr. Bonner in particular had rapid fire “patter” singing which, when combined with a fair amount of slapstick humor, well captured the absurdity of the plot. Thanks to the lay-out of the stage and pit, conductor Laycock had everything at his fingertips, and no trouble communicating with the singers onstage. Trumpeter Christopher Stingle’s solo in the Act II scene in the park was especially poignant, and an unnamed guitarist provided some excellent playing in one of Norina’s scenes.

Lighting designer Ken Yunker chose to bathe the sets in very subtle lighting, with equally as understated costumes designed by Patricia Hibbert (making Norina’s Act II hot pink gown all the more contrasting). The Berlind Theatre stage worked well for the production, with the exception of the necessary dead time between scenes; perhaps the orchestra could have played in those spots to keep the mood intact. However, the opening night overall was crisp and confident, giving the full-house audience in the Berlind Theatre what they had come to see — entertainment.

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