Review: De Niese, Castronovo, Del Carlo Delight in a Deliriously Daffy “Don Pasquale” – San Diego Opera, March 10, 2012

One of the San Diego Opera’s most famous productions is David Gately’s much esteemed relocation of Donizetti’s great comic opera “Don Pasquale”,  into a tongue-in-cheek potrayal of the mid-19th century American West.  Pasquale is transformed into the owner of a hotel. Dr Malatesta dresses like Buffalo Bill. Ernesto is a Cowpoke who bathes at Miss Kitty’s saloon. A coolie, Hop Sing, is the head of Pasquale’s three person hotel staff,  and (the opera being performed in Mission-oriented San Diego), the Notary is a Franciscan Padre.

The fashion of shifting time and place of standard repertory operas during the past quarter century or so has had mixed – sometimes deplorable – results, but Gately’s Wild West “Pasquale” is one of the most imaginative transformations of the genre. It’s a comedic opera, like Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” in which time and place were not specified by the composer, and like “Cosi”, a brilliant restaging with a first rate cast can prove engaging for the audience and make for a memorable Night at the Opera.

Donizetti intended the opera’s setting to be in “contemporary” times, but surely did not expect productions to freeze the action in the early 1840s, the period of the opera’s premiere. Nor do I suspect that the very practical, theatrically savvy composer would have had any trouble with the story hopping across the ocean to the Western side of North America.

John Del Carlo’s Don Pasquale

The title role was acted by John Del Carlo, who has become a stalwart in the basso buffo repertory, which abounds with characters whose pomposity and bluster is exposed to ridicule.

[Below: Don Pasquale (John Del Carlo) expresses his frustrations to a squirrel; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

But Donizetti also created in Pasquale a character who was sufficiently introspective to feel genuine pathos when the reality of his situation –  as he understood it to be – finally gripped him. Even though the Malatesta-Norina deception  turns out to be merely a hoax, the audience’s sympathy (at least for a few moments) properly shifts to Pasquale.

I suspect that this opera would be a poor candidate for creating a very funny production in the 21st century, where a host of laws governing elder abuse and conspiracy to engage in fraudulent financial activites might entangle Norina, Malatesta and the Notary in litigation, but set in the Wild West, the triumph of Norina’s and Ernesto’s love and engagement for marriage puts everything into proper perspective.

Danielle De Niese’s Norina

The performance was both a role debut and San Diego Opera debut for the Norina, soprano Danielle De Niese. In a part and production that uses the vocal, theatrical, and dancing skills that this extraordinary talent has amassed over her career, De Niese sang the first showstopper of the evening – the extended passage that begins with Quel guardo, il cavaliere!

A clever actress, comfortable with operatic comedy, de Niese is clearly on an upward trajectory not just towards international stardom, but operatic celebrity status as well. Her performance alone is worth the ticket.

[Below: Dnielle De Niese as Norina; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

 [For my reviews of De Niece’s justly famous Susanna, see: Festival Casting for Lyric Opera’s “Nozze di Figaro” – Chicago, March 9, 2010 and Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010.]

Charles Castronovo’s Ernesto

Lyric tenor Charles Castronovo was the Ernesto, in another role debut. Ernesto is a notorious role, much of which lies in the upper one-third of the tenor range, yet Castronovo proved a master of the role’s high tessitura. In this production, one of Ernesto’s two great arias, the taxing Cerchero lontana terra, becomes the source of physical comedy as well, delivered barechested from a bubbly bathtub in Miss Kitty’s saloon.

The second aria, Com’e gentil was also amusingly done, at the gate of a cactus garden, with a chorus of men bedecked in wide sombreros providing the opportunities of sight gags integrated with the lilting melody.

For those who have heard Castronovo’s beautiful lyric tenor previously, his maturing voice (he is in his mid-30s) is becoming larger with a darker element that suggests his career path will be concentrated for the next decade or so in the famous lyric roles of the French and bel canto repertories. In the meantime, it is a pleasure to hear this leggiero role sung by a voice like Castronovo’s, that combines his ability to sing the high tessitura with his vocal heft.

[Below: Ernesto (Charles Castronovo) has visited Miss Kitty’s saloon to take a bath; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

[For my reviews, see: Castronovo, Siurina Lead Magical San Diego Opera “Pearl Fishers” – May 9, 2008 and Audience Ovation for Domingo, Castronovo in Catan’s “Postino” – Los Angeles Opera, September 29, 2010.]

Jeff Mattsey’s Malatesta

Jeff Mattsey’s lyric baritone fit the role of Dr Malatesta nicely. The character is a key principal in one of the highlights of any performance of “Don Pasquale”, Cheti, cheti, the duet between the Doctor and the Don. Mattsey and Del Carlo each excelled in the rapid patter song that each first performs alone and then sings in unison with the other. The tradition of a faux-encore, that repeats the last part of the dual patter song, was continued in this performance to the audience’s delight.

[Below: Dr Malatesta (Jeff Mattsey, center) escorts Norina, posing as his sister, Sephronia (Danielle De Niese, right), while the Notary  (David Marshman, rear left), waits for the mock wedding ceremony; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera. ]

Additional Notes on the Performance

Conductor Marco Guidarini led a lively performance of Donizetti’s overture, containing many of the major themes of the melodious opera.

The first scene was centered in the lobby of Pasquale’s hotel, likely a stagecoach stop where ladies in Victorian dress and bustles shared the stage with four men engaged in a perpetual poker game.

The supertitles were the creation of San Diego Opera’s General Director Ian Campbell, who, despite his Australian roots, seemed totally conversant in Cowboy Country lingo. When Ernesto arrives, Pasquale can hear the clinking of Ernesto’s spurs and he is greeted with a “Howdy, partner”.

In the opera’s libretto, Norina makes reference to Pasquale having merely three servants, and the Gately production assigns the role of the leader of that threesome-in-service to a gifted mime, comedian Robert Dahey, who is a ubiquitous and invariably amusing presence. Other running gags include a staggering drunk, who manages to resist all efforts to expel him from the hotel’s barroom.

Arrivals and departures might be by horseback (although the particular horse that is engaged requires no fodder and its wrangler is most likely a prop man). Norina, at one point, straddles her hope chest and is pushed as she whips her mount. Yet in the context of this incessantly clever production, nothing seems too exceesively cute or contrived.

[Below: Don Carlo (John Del Carlo) instructs his head servamt, Hop Sing (Robert Dahey); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of teh San Diego Opera.]

Donizetti’s Comedic Gifts

Donizetti’s great comic opera is surely one of the dozen best of a supercategory that could include all the comic works of Rossini, Donizetti, Offenbach, Johann Strauss and Lehar – and Verdi’s “Falstaff”.

I have argued elsewhere that “Don Pasquale” is a particular work of genius created by a brilliant composer who had become aware of his impending mortality and wished to leave a legacy of masterworks in different styles. This is one of the crowning achievements of a composer who tragically died decades before his time.

(For those who wonder who the “William” is who wrote the essay on Donizetti’s work in the San Diego Opera program – c’est moi! My argument continues there.)

I, without hesitation, recommend this production, for its world class cast and a staging that is both light-hearted, but respectful of the spirit and worthiness of Donizetti’s great comedy.

For my review of a more traditional staging, see:  Spirited, Beautifully Sung “Don Pasquale” at Dallas Opera – February 19, 2010.

For my account of a performance which proved that in live performance, things can go awry, see:  No Norina: A “Don Pasquale” Showstopper in Zurich – September 23, 2007.