Absurdly Entertaining

Come on, get happy

À propos the Santa Fe Opera's new production of Donizetti's Don Pasquale: You want smiles-of-a-summer-night sentiment? Uh-uh. You're hoping for a frilly Valentine to young love? Fat chance. How about a prettified date-night outing? No way, Giuseppe.

The current show's propulsive, take-no-prisoners attitude values OTT bella figura over conventional bel canto licks. It's defiant: If you don't happen to like me, tough on you. Frankly, most of us were indeed swept along by the show's blatant verve the other night, with a small hèlas for the production's de-emphasis on love in bloom.

Director Laurent Pelly takes a long, unsentimental look at Don Pasquale and sees a hard-boiled comedy of trickery and deception, embellished with worldly wit and a spritz of cruelty, all packaged in a Donizetti score loaded with melodic genius. Cliché: Time just won't stand still for young love. Addendum: Neither does this moto perpetuo production. It's a sleek machine, a Maserati Berlinetta that speeds furiously along, leaving flowery expectations in the dust.

And it's spiced with sly touches of self-conscious superficiality. The first scenic device the audience sees is door upon door upon door, hinting at impending Feydeau-style farce. Sure enough—disguise, door-slams and mock-cuckoldry in a 1950's Italian neo-realist setting come boiling our way. After Pelly's previous large-scale comic extravaganzas for SFO, Cendrillon, La Belle Hélène and Platée, his current pared-down, taut production may come as a surprise, but one that's true to this opera buffa's tightly focused dramatic structure.

Only four characters plus a small chorus carry the action: decrepit Don Pasquale, who'll disinherit his nephew and take a wife out of spite; Ernesto, the not-too-bright nephew who's infatuated with a worldly-wise widow; Norina, the object of his obsession, who's not above a bit of trickery to gain marriage and money; and Dr. Malatesta, trickster-in-chief, whose motives may exceed mere friendship for Ernesto.

There's plenty of Goldoni-esque commedia at work here, and Pelly makes much of that style's one-dimensional tradition of gesture, posture and frantic stage movement. Andrew Shore plays the pantaloonish title role in the manner of a bedeviled Lionel Barrymore. Versatile in the extreme, Shore has been a fine Falstaff here; last year at Barcelona's Liceu he enacted the scariest Rheingold Alberich I've ever seen or imagined. As Pasquale he's mastered the art of the flustered splutter. You can't take your eyes off the guy.

Much the same can be said of Alek Shrader, that hunky, randy, hyperactive nephew. Precise comic timing is at work throughout the show, and Shrader's disinherited Ernesto delivers the goods in full measure. No relaxed bel canto crooning here. During his first aria, "Cercherò lontana terra," he's required to slapstick his stuff into suitcases, then juggle the bags while knocking out a high D-flat as he flees the stage. His third act serenade demands yet more daunting athletic shtick as he literally hangs the moon. Vocally and physically, Shrader gets it right.

The earthy Italian neo-realist actress, Anna Magnani, had a telling nickname, "La Lupa," that might easily be applied to Norina, sung by SFO newcomer, Laura Tatulescu. She first presents as a cynical gal in a black slip, down on her luck and ready to scheme with Malatesta for a chance at Ernesto plus a probable cash windfall. Her transformation from pretend-shy innocent to Pasquale's termagant "bride" makes for edgy fun. Tatulescu commands a terrific trill, confident passagework and plenty of red hot brio.

Zachary Nelson, manipulative last season as Mozart's Figaro, plays a similar role as crafty Dr. Malatesta, out to help the lovers defeat Don Pasquale and, one wonders, help himself in the bargain. Is there a whiff of hanky-panky in his plotting? You decide. Nelson bounds all over the place in an ugly brown suit, thuggishly charming. He's no bel canto specialist, but his forthright baritone and inexhaustible energy carry the day.

Wagner compared Donizetti's orchestration to a "big guitar," and was he ever wrong. In the silken hands of conductor Corrado Rovaris the score reveals its seductive warmth, a sharp contrast to the brittle, furious stage action. But please, Maestro—give us a reprise of the "patter" duet for Pasquale and Malatesta? Pelly does his own effective costumes, especially the Columbina get-up for profligate Norina. Duane Schuler is the excellent light-meister, and Susanne Sheston again prepares the nimble chorus for its brief, vivacious numbers.

Chantal Thomas' set, a series of revolving angular spaces that evoke an absurdist comic book The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, provides a cheerful assist to the action, and when the lights came up for the second half, a witty scenic joke brought happy gasps from the house.

Oh, yes—"Happy." Thanks to Mr. Pharrell Williams for his reminder: "Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof." 'Cuz that's how this show, and opera buffa in general should make us feel. Happy.

Exit clapping.

As a supplemental sidenote: Enter the newer-than-new music concert, Creative Dialogue VI, free at St. Francis Auditorium at 1 pm Friday, July 11. Distinguished composer Magnus Lindberg, gifted cellist Anssi Karttunen and fearless Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan lead a dozen young artists and composers from top conservatories in a program guaranteed to provoke auditory astonishment.

John Stege has been writing about classical music for SFR since 1986. A nearly native New Mexican, he began attending SFO performances in 1957 while a Harvard undergraduate.

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