Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is one of the gems of Italian opera buffa. The tale of an aging, pompous bachelor who schemes to marry and cut his nephew Ernesto out of his inheritance, only to be outwitted by Norina, Ernesto’s true love, and the wise Dr. Malatesta, is filled with melodic delights and comedic high jinks.
Unfortunately, Florida Grand Opera’s revisionist staging, which opened Saturday night at the Arsht Center, is too often lacking in the wit and spark that can fill the house with laughter and the fizz of musical champagne.
Director Renaud Doucet has updated the action (from Glasgow-based Scottish Opera) to the Rome of the swinging 1960s. Don Pasquale is a recluse who collects stray cats and owns a run-down pensione (guest house). The overture is accompanied by a slide show illustrating Pasquale’s allergy to the cats, Doctor Malatesta’s attempts to cure him and Ernesto’s romantic attachment to Norina. This amusing concept quickly becomes tired as does André Barbe’s unit set, depicting the house, rooftop guest lounge and clothesline.
As in his previous FGO stagings, Doucet peppers the production with almost nonstop sight gags. Cards with lyrics descend from above the stage. Guests arrive only to exit immediately after viewing the cat-infested premises. Norina presents Pasquale with a puppy at the final curtain.
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To be sure there were some amusing moments. After the mock wedding when Norina turns shrew and big spender (via Pasquale’s bank account), she removes the cats and fills the house with modern furnishings and lighting, attracting chic tourists. Along the way, however, the opera’s romance and wisdom and fast-paced farce get completely lost. Indeed this version moves at a slow gait, unaided by conductor Ramon Tebar’s sluggish tempos. The dearth of laughter from the first-night audience was manifest.
Whether because of the set or underpowered singing, there were consistent problems with vocal projection. Lower voices fared best. Kristopher Irmiter was an appropriately bumbling Don Pasquale. His firm bass-baritone comfortably encompassed the role’s lowest reaches and he could spin patter at high speed while stumbling about the stage.
Marco Nisticò has the dark baritonal timbre and agile sense of byplay for Dr. Malatesta. He phrased “Belia sicome un angelo” with grace and a fine cantabile line. Even so, the celebrated Pasquale-Malatesta duet was a low energy affair that failed to make any impact.
Laura Tatulescu captured Norina’s impishness but her lightweight voice turned shrill on top and she lacked the coloratura facility to make the bubbly finale really sing. Playing a wonky Ernesto, Jesus Álvarez’s attractive lyric tenor was constricted in the upper register and a size too small for the house. His “Com’é gentil,” although accurately sung, was wanting in ardor and elegance.
Tebar drew solid orchestra playing but his fussy lingering over details consistently robbed the music of any vitality. With Nisticò in high vocal gear, the Act II quartet managed to work its magic. Yet in this otherwise trivial and vocally lackluster Don Pasquale, that kind of essential sparkle was in short supply.
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