In mid-19th-century Italy, when attending opera was as popular as going to the movies today, Gaetano Donizetti turned out operas at a remarkable rate. In his fifty-year lifetime, he composed more than sixty-five operatic works, with the comic Don Pasquale one of his most popular. Boheme Opera NJ, celebrating its 24th season, presented this comic classic at the Mayo Concert Hall of the College of New Jersey Center for the Arts this past weekend. Sunday afternoon’s performance (the opera was also performed Saturday night) offered the audience an unassuming yet crisp production, which while maybe a bit low-tech, showed all-around solid singing with one clear break-out star.
The stage in Mayo Hall is indeed a concert hall, with no pit for the orchestra or apparatus from which to fly backdrops. Boheme Opera set the stage in a chamber-like atmosphere, with the orchestra onstage behind the singers, and minimalistic furniture dividing the stage into two “scenes.” The effect was that of seeing an opera in someone’s living room, with a chamber instrumental ensemble augmented by piano. Conductor Joseph Pucciatti led the small ensemble in a clean overture with an especially elegant cello solo from Katrina Kormanski.
With only four principal characters, Don Pasquale is a substantial opera to be carried by a few people. Bass-baritone Edward Bogusz had no trouble reacting to the small stage (and did not seem a bit surprised to find an orchestra in his character’s living room) and sang the title role with great animation and a very solid voice, especially in the lower register. Although there were times when the full orchestral sound overpowered the singers a bit, Mr. Bogusz sang the quick recitative sections well, projecting the English text to the back of the hall, and clearly seemed to enjoy himself.
The inherent trouble-maker onstage was Dr. Malatesta, sung cleanly by baritone Kevin Grace. Mr. Grace was also solid with diction, forming a good vocal combination with David Gagnon, singing the romantic lead role of Ernesto. Mr. Gagnon presented some of the most expressive music of the opera, including a lyrical first act aria and the refined and graceful Act III aria to his beloved. Mr. Gagnon commanded audience appeal with sensitive and thoughtful singing, causing members of the audience to comment after his arias on the beauty of his voice.
A continual pleasure to see onstage was soprano Sungji Kim, who found a strong depth of character in Norina, Ernesto’s intended who was always contriving to get her way. Ms. Kim played the role as a smart cookie who pulled out all the stops when necessary. With a voice that spun off high coloratura with ease, Ms. Kim was especially impressive with her ease with fast-moving passages, breath control, and dramatic vocal tone. Currently a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, Ms. Kim clearly has a future in 19th-century lead soprano roles.
Boheme Opera’s production of Don Pasquale was a model of elegant simplicity, and making the most use of the stage available. Mayo Hall’s wood paneling and solid color painted walls created a 19th-century backdrop, and unadorned furniture at the front of the stage made the audience quickly forget that there was an orchestra right behind. Costuming placed the plot in an unambiguous modern time (especially with Pasquale’s checking the time on his wristwatch), and the focus for the production was clearly on entertainment and good singing. Given that entertainment and singing were likely also the goals of Donizetti’s original productions, it seems that Boheme Opera’s Don Pasquale was a success.