Last night, I had the pleasure of attending Boston Midsummer Opera’s opening night performance of Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti. Don Pasquale is one of latest and most successful works of the ailing veteran composer of 64 operas, and one which he produced with the efficacious speed of an experienced hand. Donizetti recruited Giovanni Ruffini to fashion a libretto based on the story of Pavesi’s 1810 opera Ser Marc’Antonio. Donizetti often disregarded Ruffini’s laborious drafts, ultimately alienating him enough to have him demand to have his name removed from the project altogether and thereby creating a mystery that would not be solved for almost a century.
Suffering from a lack of supper due to a slow train ride, I really can’t say that I was at all in the mood to see a ‘moral-equivalent-to-slapstick,’ Commedia dell’arte ‘stock’ plot set to the ‘cranked-out’ musical style of a semi-retired opera buffa composer. What I will say is that the production was sufficiently strong to pull me out of my malaise and win me over.
Directing a modest-sized orchestral ensemble perfectly suited for the Tsai Performance Center space at Boston University, Susan Davenny Wyner as a conductor is gifted with an unmatched sensitivity to balance and phrasing when collaborating with singers onstage. Having once enjoyed a singing career herself, she really shows that experience in her choice of tempos and in her empathic ability to breathe with soloists while warmly supporting them, never letting either drag or push the other along. As a singer myself, I would love to be cradled in this way.
The curtain rose to expose a warmly lit, Orient-inspired, wooden set, a sparsely beautiful composition by scenic designer Stephen Dobay. Its intended timelessness appeared to contain reference to modernism as well as to traditional Japanese simplicity, harkening back to both Victorian use of Oriental themes in interior décor as well as turn-of-the-(19th)-century Arts and Crafts naturalist minimalism. With artistic touches of Japanese umbrellas in Act III, exquisitely lit like an undersea garden by lighting designer John Cuff, the set had a sense of economy that supported the production with a truly pleasing aesthetic. Instead of placing the story in modern times in an attempt to make it more accessible to a modern audience, the approach in this production was to mix and match periods in costume against set design to make the environment timelessly malleable. Much of the cast wore mixed-and-matched 18th- and 19th-century costumes except for Ernesto, who wore jeans, and a chorus of wait staff dressed in more modern servant uniforms. The choice for current-day inclusiveness was supported in theory by a libretto with some modern references, in an English translation; the touches of modern clothing were perhaps intended to enhance it.
Although aesthetically beautiful to have highly decorative clothing against the minimalist set, mixing in modern clothes unfortunately served to achieve more period confusion than fusion. Designers, especially young designers, should not be discouraged from sticking their necks out for an idea; but if the execution of the idea doesn’t come across to an audience, to be told as much should be treated as a learning experience rather than a setback. Unfortunately, to a Boston audience perfectly comfy with traditionalism and somewhat fussy about period authenticity as well as consistency, I heard from other people that the concept didn’t work for them, and my own aesthetic leanings yearned for more consistency as well.
The backbone of this production, as it should be, was its extremely solid cast. Ricardo Lugo as Don Pasquale was both powerful and humorous, with physical gestures perfectly timed that got hearty laughs from the audience. David Kravitz as Malatesta, Pasquale’s double-agent schemer and sidekick, matched Lugo’s power and comedic gestures with competence, creating between them a good balance and banter. Leslie Ann Bradley as Norina not only looked the part and had effortlessly natural gestures and comedic timing, but her equally effortless vocal facility, both in her coloratura and lyricism, possessed a mature, brightly mellow tone quality that was neither wobbly nor tinny — beautiful enough to listen to in all registers for the duration of a Donizetti ingénue marathon that one never tired of her. She would make a glorious Rosina. Alex Richardson as Ernesto sang with a brightly sweet lyricism that blended with Bradley’s Norina in a way that was truly breathtaking in their Act III garden duet. In addition to these four solid principals was a chorus of sound musicians in the role of agile movers. A choreographed bit in Act III that provided the chorus with an opportunity to really shine was both cleverly done and highly memorable. Also memorable was the ensemble blend of the four principals, beautifully executed and directed.
Austin Pendleton’s stage direction was refreshingly un-contrived. As a truly established veteran both onstage and behind the scenes, he employed his directorial efforts selflessly to support a natural delivery, facilitating clearer accessibility of what can otherwise be the stiffly arcane ridiculousness of Commedia dell’arte for the modern audience. In the artistic director’s notes, musicologist Piero Rattalino wrote, “…When Don Pasquale feels disillusioned by [Norina’s] rebelliousness… the character is no longer depicted as a laughable old man, babbling and whimpering ridiculously: he is a character whose dignity as a human being has been wounded, a tragic character with whom Donizetti affectionately sympathizes. This represents a vital watershed in the history of opera buffa: pity for a foolish old man was a new dimension that subverted comedy as it had been perceived up until Donizetti’s time.” As a modern audience member, it is hard to perceive these historical landmarks in the development of theater, but Pendleton’s approach to this production was successful in helping to bring any available nuance to light.