San Diego Opera’s ‘Wild’ Don Pasquale

Danielle de Niese and John Del Carlo in San Diego Opera's DON PASQUALE (March 2012). Photo by Ken Howard, 2012.

Gaetano Donizetti may be best known for Lucia di Lammermoor and other tragic operas, but I love his comedies most of all, especially his glittering Don Pasquale. This cautionary tale of a love-struck codger who learns a tough lesson in the amour department is bursting with great arias, brilliantly crafted ensembles and some of the most sidesplitting moments in all opera. Add to that the Rolls Royce of patter duets and the audience is guaranteed an evening of sparkling entertainment whose universal and timeless comedy easily rivals the most popular TV sitcoms of recent decades. In fact, screen versions of this story exist: a 1940 Cinecittà Studios feature film, and two Italian TV versions from 1955 (starring opera luminaries Italo Tajo and Sesto Bruscantini) and 1985. Who could blame filmmakers for recognizing silver screen potential in this beguiling Commedia dell’Arte tale?

Though the opera’s story takes place in Rome, the 1843 premiere was presented, not in one of the famous Italian opera houses but in the Théâtre Italien, a Parisian venue that specialized in Italian opera. At the time, the beloved opera buffa so popular during the nineteenth century was being supplanted by the up-and-coming Grand Opera; thus some consider Don Pasquale to be the last true opera buffa. To me this masterpiece epitomizes the nec plus ultra of both the comic genre and the bel canto style.

Jeff Mattsey, Danielle de Niese and Charles Castronovo in San Diego Opera's DON PASQUALE (March 2012). Photo by Ken Howard, 2012.Donizetti understood the tastes of theatregoers, set out to entertain them, and succeeded. Like Verdi, whose successful attempt at comic opera occurred late in life, Donizetti waited until late in his career to write this captivating comedy, the sixty-fourth of his sixty-six (or seventy, depending on your source) operas. Pasquale’s popularity rivaled that of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Donizetti’s own L’Elisir. And it was written in three weeks!

As is often said about Verdi’s Il Trovatore, all you need for Don Pasquale are four of the greatest singers in the world; in this case they need to be brilliant comedians as well. In a unique twist, the bass and baritone dominate the plot rather than the soprano and tenor: Pasquale’s willingness to subject himself to the machinations of his friend Dr. Malatesta sets the story in motion, culminating in a patter duet that literally can take the listener’s breath away – not to mention that of the singers.

Saturday night’s San Diego Opera opening of this beloved Donizetti work was filled with great singing, but I must admit I was skeptical about its setting in the Wild West. Having performed the piece as a violinist with the Met Opera, I was accustomed to more traditional fare, such as the 1979 production mounted for Beverly Sills (her last role at the Met), which was all flounces, pastels and parasols. In last night’s premiere, I expected something like Annie Get Your Gun meets La Fanciulla Del West. I’m happy to report this was not the case. This SDO production was a delightful surprise, and the all American cast was à propos of the western setting.

Hardly a major bass-baritone role is missing from John Del Carlo’s repertoire, and he has sung many of these at such major houses as the Met and San Francisco. He was last seen in SDO’s 2009 production of Peter Grimes. As Pasquale, he coupled his considerable vocal versatility with a dazzling array of comic gestures.

Jeff Mattsey’s hearty baritone has become pleasurably familiar to SDO audiences in recent seasons. As Malatesta, his voice was sonorous but never woolly, though I would like to hear him in a role that shows off more high notes.

Soprano Danielle de Niese is Norina in San Diego Opera's DON PASQUALE (March 2012). Photo by Ken Howard, 2012.In her debut at SDO and in the role of Norina, Danielle de Niese, equally impressive as opera singer and concert performer, gave a captivating rendering of Pasquale’s pistol-packing nemesis. She seemed nervous in her delicious opening aria, but as she adjusted I found her voice lush, her interpretation appealing, and her nimble execution effervescent. Coupled with her exceptional flair for the stage, there is no doubt as to why she has appeared in so many of the world’s great theaters.

Having seen Charles Castronovo in the wonderful LA Opera production of Il Postino, I was really looking forward to his Ernesto in SDO’s Pasquale, and thought his crystal clear tenor perfectly suited to this role. The beauty of his voice, displayed in Les Pêcheurs de Perles at SDO, was evident as he negotiated the fine line between lyric and comic elements. From all accounts, his voice is becoming darker and fuller, and I look forward to hearing him in weightier roles such as Romeo.

In his SDO debut Genoa-born conductor Marco Guidarini was the only Italian among this stable of American performers, but he showed sensitivity for the production’s uniquely American setting. A veteran of La Scala, the Met, Deutsche Opera Berlin and others, he demonstrated a deep understanding of the Italian style and a cognizance of the subtle differences between Pasquale and other well-known comic operas like Il Barbiere di Siviglia. His cowboy hat salute before Act 3 elicited cheers from the audience.

Director David Gately is known for classic opera repertoire as well as such contemporary fare as Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. Rather than a standard take on Pasquale, Gately’s focused on the culture clash between the quintessential Italian buffo character and the bewildering ways of his “new world” environment. The constant activity in the staging did not distract but played up the charm and wit of the story – one possible exception was setting Ernesto’s heartrending aria Cercherò lontana terra in a bathtub – and I enjoyed the clever use of colloquial Wild West idioms such as “cacti,” “spurs” and “Dead Man Walking” in the translation.

Set designer Tony Fanning’s film background is impressive: he has worked on over twenty features and TV shows. With inventive sets that reflect the clear influence of spaghetti-westerns, this tongue-in-cheek production pays homage to his personal Hollywood history.

The audience participated enthusiastically throughout the evening. Their response exploded into a standing ovation at the end that was rowdy enough to evoke the Wild West.

Donizetti would have been pleased.

Don Pasquale will have three more performances – March 13, 16, and 18, 2012. For more information visit the San Diego Opera website »

Pictures by: Ken Howard, 2012