Bringing the spirit of opera buffa
by Philip Campbell
The San Francisco Opera's third offering of the fall season, Donizetti's melodic bit of fluff Don Pasquale opened last week at the War Memorial in an amusing staging that also showed a rather cynical viewpoint from director Laurent Pelly.
A cheerful mood is set from the moment we see a picture of the luscious Gina Lollobrigida in 1958, staring provocatively from the cover of the luxurious program magazine. The cast is promising, and the orchestra sounds delightfully buoyant as veteran conductor Giuseppe Finzi starts the Overture. The sets by Chantal Thomas and costumes by the director, intentionally recalling Italian cinema of the 1950s and 60s, are witty and attractive. So far, so very good.
The updating doesn't upset the trajectory of Giovanni Ruffini and the composer's paper-thin albeit intricate libretto, and the spirit of opera buffa fills the air with every note. The excellent musical aspects of the performance take the production to a necessary higher level of fun. Ironically, the equally first-rate acting abilities of the quartet of principal singers expose a mean streak in the story that Pelly only encourages with bits of business that take some sparkle out of the Prosecco.
Miserly Don Pasquale is seeking a bride and determined to defer his layabout nephew Ernesto's marriage plans. The spoiled youth risks being disinherited, and he and his betrothed Norina, a young widow, are obviously vexed by the old man's stubbornness. Dr. Malatesta, Pasquale's confidante and a friend to the aggrieved couple, concocts an elaborate prank to shake him from his selfishness and unite the more suitably matched youngsters. Hijinks ensue, but in this imagining the knockabout humor and funny sight gags can sometimes turn sour as the trio of conspirators often seems more venal than their target.
From her first appearance, soprano Heidi Stober as Norina, looking great as a brunette, betrays a certain world-weariness as she casts a jaundiced eye on romance singing her opening aria. She is already a bit of a minx, even before she fakes a marriage to Don Pasquale and turns into a real Bridezilla. Stober has the right voice and pleasing edge to her sound to perfectly fit the characterization. We get her motivation but lose sympathy when Pelly has her slap Pasquale way too realistically in a fit of pique. It may be in the script, but the gasp from the audience on opening night signaled a serious directorial misstep. A smack on the back of the head or a shake of the shoulders, okay; this just looked cruel.
Likewise, charming as tenor Lawrence Brownlee is in his SFO debut as Ernesto (lovin' the pompadour), even his puppy-dog antics can't hide his character's essentially petulant nature and lazy greediness. We forgive him simply because he sounds so good and appears relatively innocent. Brownlee has built a reputation for his brilliant and liquid ease with bel canto, and his comic timing is instinctive. Stober's Norina may be too much woman for his Ernesto, but when they sing together they make a lovely pair.
Baritone Lucas Meachem has proven his credibility in opera buffa with his outstanding SFO Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia 2015. Pelly shapes his portrayal of Dr. Malatesta as more of an imposer than a wise helpmate, and it darkens the part. He still fills the auditorium with a big, rich sound, even as we ponder his murky intentions. His rapid patter-singing provides a welcome and breathtaking comic contrast.
Analysis and too serious interpretation of a basically balmy farce filled with exceptionally pretty tunes gratefully stops whenever Italian bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro is onstage in the title role. To everyone's delight, that's most of the time. How can he sing so well, mugging hilariously while performing the physical comedy like a man half his age? In an evening filled with grins, Muraro gets laugh-out-loud results. His lovability quotient makes the old misanthrope understandable and switches the audience's sympathies.
It may not be what the director is going for. The top of Act II, with a haunting trumpet solo by Adam Luftman presaging Nino Rota's The Godfather, has Muraro sitting in the half-dark in his lonely armchair. Another clever touch, but this Don is nowhere near as coldhearted.
Ian Robertson's SFO Chorus is deployed as the raft of servants Norina hires to spite her cheapskate ersatz husband. As usual, they fill the stage with full-throated singing and humorous individual personalities.
At the final reveal, the schemers throw the moral of their punking in Don Pasquale's face: marriage isn't meant for the old. We can't help feeling this old geezer still has a shot.
Through Oct. 15. Second-year SFO Adler Fellow baritone Edward Nelson sings the role of Dr. Malatesta on Oct. 7.