Gaetano Donizetti miraculously wrote seventy-five operas during his brief lifetime. But what makes Don Pasquale stand out as one of the funniest comic operas (opera buffa) ever written is that it is filled with exquisitely beautiful bel canto arias, patter songs, and melodramatic humor. Its unforgettable characters are a mix of good and evil. Yet, its plot seems to be a recipe for disaster: what’s funny about an old geezer going after an innocent young woman?
In Donizetti’s original 19th century opera, Don Pasquale was a foolish, old bachelor, based on the commedia del’arte character, Pantalone. In this 21st century In Series remake, Don Pasquale (Terry Eberhardt) is a cunning old rock star, like the legendary Mick Jagger, who lusts for eternal fame and a younger woman.
Librettist Bari Biern places her adaptation in Los Angeles, the place where anything can happen. There’s the history of the silent screen film techniques which stage director Elizabeth Pringle uses to maximum effect. An elegant penthouse living room interior, furnished with a plush chaise lounge chair, give us a view of nighttime L.A through a view from three picture windows. Street lamps are lit in the distance. It could be any major U.S. city until a daytime slide projection displays the famous, hillside HOLLYWOOD sign. (Set Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s window views for Acts II and III are equally important.)
Located stage right, the five-piece string ensemble (two violins, viola, cello and piano), perfectly perform the light-hearted, melodic bel canto theme songs. The music reinforces the frenetic pace of the adoring fans gathered outside Don Pasquale’s penthouse in the sky. During the Prologue, several groupies, guys wearing shades and casually dressed, and women, in short-sleeved dresses, sandals and sunglasses, traipse back and forth. They are Millennials who pantomime asking each other for autographs.
Don Pasquale, played to the hilt by resonant-voiced bass-baritone Terry Eberhardt, is in a hurry to finalize a marriage deal with his confidant and intimate advisor, Doctor Malatesta, (the booming-voiced baritone Raymond Ghattas), who delivers resounding support. Eberhardt is flashily dressed in a red sequined shirt, and sleek, black, tight-fitting trousers, suitable for a hard rock concert. And bear-claw slippers that are hilarious, signaling, perhaps, that Pasquale is a predatory animal underneath his hyped grandeur.
The blustery but bumbling Malatesta claims to have found an apt bride. In spite of his age, Pasquale, who winces with arthritic back pain, wants to get one up on his nephew and heir, Ernesto, for rebelling against an arranged marriage. So, to cheat his nephew out of his inheritance, Pasquale arranges a marriage for himself to a younger woman. But Dr. Malatesta, decides to teach Pasquale a lesson by setting him up with Malatesta’s supposedly innocent sister, Sophronia, who lives in a convent.
Ernesto, played with beautiful, high-octane energy by tenor David Wolff, is a rebellious millennial, who is madly in love with Norina, a poor script writer. Newcomer Suzanne Lane, gifted with a strong soprano voice, that is capable of coloratura passages, sings her role gloriously. She is the plucky Columbine heroine, sassy and full of defiance. She takes part in the fake marriage ceremony between herself and Pasquale, who signs over all control of his fortune and property to his new wife. As soon as Pasquale’s fortune is in Norina’s control, she becomes an outrageous, demanding shrew. As the complicated plot unravels, Pasquale learns his lesson and all ends happily.
But let’s back up a bit. In Pasquale’s elegant digs, his nephew, Ernesto, a struggling musician, descends the center stage steps, texting on his smart phone. Dressed in grungy black pants and worn T-shirt, Ernesto is the dreamy Pierrot, a laid-back, foolish lover, who offers dramatic contrast to the elegant, shiny-pants Don. Uncle Pasquale announces his revenge and Ernesto is devastated. Wolff, a high tenor, sings with amazing agility, and displays resounding poise mixed with edginess when he, later, becomes part of the fake marriage trick. (Costumes by Donna Bresslin.)
Director Elizabeth Pringle keeps the pace brisk and juices flowing throughout Act I’s hunt for a suitable bride.
Pasquale drools with greed over the idea of a bride who will be his trophy wife: beautiful, kind, submissive and obedient. But predominant in this less-than-sympathetic character, looms his appetite for revenge. He’s really a bit of a villain.
Here, librettist Bari Biern impressively shines with her playful approximate rhymes in the recitative. All dialogue is sung; never spoken in this opera. From an Act I scene: Pasquale gloats and drips with greed: “My lovely bride-to-be/and her Pasquale/ Will raise a family/ Six kids by golly!/And ev’ry kid I see is gonna look like me……/They’ll be my legacy after I’m gone.”
Even more important in Act I, is the “Cavatina,” a patter song, part of the recitative, sung expressively by Norina. When alone, at the coffee house, she boasts that she is an expert at manipulating men: “I do enjoy to toy with boys/I’ve got it to a science/I win their compliance,/They never stand a chance!/…..I change my behavior/From stormy to sunny,/Sometimes I am pensive,/Sometimes I am funny,/Who knows what you’ll get?/One moment I’m cuddly,/The next a tornado!/A peach, a piranha,/A pest or a pet./But I’m just performing,/I’m really heartwarming./At heart, I am charming.”
As Pasquale’s guru, Dr. Malatesta, Raymond Ghattas wearing a mandarin-collared tuxedo jacket, patterned with gold, is an equally imposing figure. As a spiritual advisor who holds his hands in prayer position, his motives are clear. He is a trickster, capable of wily schemes so that the Ernesto and Norina can go on seeing each other behind Pasquale’s back. And the madness in the plot allows librettist Bari Biern to play with even more scintillating, challenging and wildly funny approximate rhyme schemes.
Millennials grew up in an age dominated by electronics and director Pringle heightens the humor with visual references. In Act I’s Donizetti Coffee Shop scene, a projection of a breaking heart appears on the upstage screen space that was a window with a view into Pasquale’s penthouse. We catch a shot of the breaking heart and drawings Ernesto sent to Norina via e-mail. It’s melodramatic and funny.
For Act II, the screen projections change to Ernesto’s room in Pasquale’s penthouse. When Pasquale, believing he is lawfully married to a shy, convent girl “Sofronia”, signs over his fortune and control of his house to Norina, Malatesta’s prank begins to take hold. Norina transforms into a shrew, demanding money, jewelry, even a Lamborghini car, and in general turns Pasquale’s life upside down. She shops but never drops in her extravagant demands for lavish new furniture, swimming pool, designer clothes, and a personal trainer. Ultimately, Pasquale regrets interfering with his nephew’s life.
As Pasquale, Terry Eberhardt, a returning performer for the In Series company, brings a flamboyant, regal grace to the mix. Notably in the second act scene where he poses with assertive flair, proudly displaying a long-haired wig, down to his waist like a Louis XIV Sun King.
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In Act III, the focus shifts to the lovers, Norina and Ernesto. The screen projections have changed to the upscale, palatial Rodeo Drive-style boutiques. Norina continues her demands and in general, conducts a reign of terror. But the climax comes in the scene where Norina’s mask of the sweet, compliant submissive bride slips off. She slaps Don Pasquale in the face, with a Rolling Stone magazine and instantly regrets it. It’s a gesture, both ironic and painful. Don Pasquale, the rock star gets hit on the face with a photo of Mick Jagger. Pasquale’s reaction elicits our sympathy. He is a victim of a shrewish, fearful witch. He cries, “That’s the end of poor Pasquale./I am wounded, I am broken./She has pounded me to pulp/With ev’ry nasty word she’s spoken,/Left me wounded, left me broken./Wanna just curl up and die.” Because of his performance, for a moment I felt sorry for Don Pasquale.
But the highpoint for the entire opera is yet to come. In the coffee house, David Wolff sings of Ernesto’s passionate love for Norina in the bravura aria, #12. “Serenade/A lovely night.” Wolff a beautiful, high octane, heart-stopping, tenor brought down the house, eliciting “Bravo, Bravo” from the audience.
Director Pringle sets the stage for the happy ending in a brilliant wedding ceremony in the coffee house where Ernesto is hiding. Malatesta asks if Ernesto is present for a wedding ceremony. Malatesta:”Oh, Ernesto! Are you here?” The ensemble has lined up to form a barricade. Ernesto leaps forward, breaks through the line and says in a bravura manner, “Here I am!” It’s an awesome, vaudevillian moment. Ernesto is ready to claim Norina and take her away from Don Pasquale. There are cheers in the audience. The good guys are winning. That’s as far as I will go without giving away the final ending. But it’s the most dramatic high point of many in the opera. It’s not just hysterically funny; it sends our spirits dancing jubilantly on to the conclusion and moral to the story.
On opening night, the In Series cast delivered an inspired, magical performance that went over-the-top, thanks to four outstanding lead singers: Terry Eberhardt, Raymond Ghattas, David Wolff, and Suzanne Lane, who proved themselves to be consummate performers. They make this Don Pasquale a not-to-be-missed standout.
Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti, with a new English libretto by Bari Biern, based on the original libretto by Donizetti and Giovanni Ruffini, who based his on Angelo Anelli. Directed by Elizabeth Pringle, Set and projections designed by Jonathan Dahm Robertson. Lighting by Master Electrician Alex Keen, with Assistant Lighting Design by Nathaniel Collard.. Costumes designed by Donna Breslin. Stage Manager: Cindy King. Production Coordinator: Brian J. Shaw. Supertitles by Renae Erichsen-Teal. Set Building: Jonathan Dahm Robertson and Matty Griffiths.
Featuring: Terry Eberhardt, as Don Pasquale. Raymond Ghattas. David Wolff, as Ernesto. Suzanne Lane as Norina. Don Pasqual ensemble: Elliot Matheny, Garrett Matthews, Beth Madeline Rubens, and Chris Herman.
On-stage Chamber Instrumental Ensemble: Stanley Thurston, Conductor. Joseph Walsh, Pianist. Sonia Garcia, Violin I; Alison Konopka, Violin II; George Ohlson, Viola; Anna Bain Pugh, Cello; Mary Dausch, Viola (3/26). Rehearsal Pianists: Joseph Walsh, Frank Conlon, Reenie Codelka, Debbie Grossman, and Nicolas Catravas.
Produced by In Series. Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.