Review: Ovations for Laurent Pelly’s Daffy “Don Pasquale” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2014

At the beginning of this review, I admit to a prejudice for the creative work of French director Laurent Pelly, out of whose imagination has resulted so many satisfying opera house evenings.

Even though each operatic work – be it a zany comedy, fantasy or serious drama – is approached with originality, there are some distinctive Pelly elements (in collaboration with his scenic designer, Chantal Thomas), that are featured in all his works.

Structures have peculiar shapes, surfaces are often jagged. Nor is Pelly shy in exploring the surreal in opera.

[Below: Production designer Laurent Pelly; resized image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.] .


His most recent work at the Santa Fe has been his production of Verdi’s “La Traviata”, seen in both 2009 [Dessay’s Scintillating Role Debut as Violetta in Pelly’s Imaginative Santa Fe “Traviata” – July 3, 2009] and 2013 [Brenda Rae, Michael Fabiano Impress in Pelly’s Party-Time “Traviata” – Santa Fe Opera, July 29, 2013].

My praise was lavish for his work last summer in San Francisco [Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013] .

However, most relevant to this Santa Fe Opera’s season’s assignment, a new production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”, are his productions for Donizetti’s other two great comic operas, “The Elixir of Love”  [See Hayseed Hilarity: The Pelly “L’Elisir” in Paris – September 16, 2007] and “The Daughter of the Regiment” [Debuting Diana Damrau Delights as Donizetti Diva: San Francisco “Fille du Regiment” – October 13, 2009.]

The Pelly Pasquale

“Don Pasquale” is based on an enduring theme of comic opera. Young love triumphs despite the disapproval of a crotchety elder, but not without considerable (and hilarious) effort on the part of the young lovers to get what they want.

When Don Pasquale, the crotchety elder, decides to disinherit his nephew, a sham marriage is arranged between a deluded Pasquale and a seemingly meek woman, who becomes a termagant and spendthrift as soon as the the marriage contract between Pasquale and her is signed.

This disruption to Pasquale’s ordered existence includes an expensive redecoration of the house that turns everything topsy-turvy. Not only is the Chantal Thomas/Laurent Pelly penchant for irregular lines manifest throughout the Pasquale’s house, but Pasquale’s living room is upside down in the resulting redecoration .

[Below: The newly hired household help (members of the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singers) complain about their madcap work environment; edited image, based on an Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Andrew Shore’s Pasquale and Alek Shrader’s Ernesto

Donizetti’s work is famous for having four lead characters, each with magnificent, melodious music to sing.

British basso-buffo Andrew Shore was cast as Don Pasquale, and the veteran delivered what was, on balance, a rather sympathetic portrait of a man of experience who has given up on trying to reason with an irresponsible young nephew whose future Pasquale feels he must secure.

[Below: Don Pasquale (Andrew Shore, left) expresses his dislike of the marital ambitions of his nephew, Ernesto (Alek Shrader, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


What Pelly does is to cast the Ernesto (played with verve by tenor Alek Shrader) as genuinely irresponsible. Ernesto first appears well into the day in his bedclothes.

When Pasquale insists that he seek a financially secure marriage, Shrader’s Ernesto flies into a tantrum, comically over-reacting (and deliberately over-acting), exhibiting all the traits of a toddler in the Terrible Twos.

The role of Ernesto is a notoriously difficult one, avoided by many lyric tenors who are themselves Donizetti specialists because so much of the part is in the upper third of the range that a tenor is expected to sing.

Alek Shrader not only sang the part magnificently, but, at Pelly’s direction, performed athletic feats throughout the night – a truly remarkable, and surely physically taxing, performance.

[Doctor Malatesta (Zachary Nelson, left) explains his plan to Norina (Shelley Jackson, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Zachary Nelson’s Malatesta and Shelley Jackson’s Norina

The person who has assessed the situation and has devised a plan is Doctor Malatesta (baritone Zachary Nelson) friend to both Pasquale, Ernesto and Ernesto’s intended, Norina  (Shelley Jackson, who made an unscheduled Santa Fe Opera debut at the indisposition of the original Norina).

The plot works. Pasquale, seemingly facing financial ruin from the extravagant expenditures of the woman he thought he married, learns his lesson.

[Below:singing the quartets that end the first act are, from left to right, Shelley Jackson as Norina, Alek Shrader as Ernesto, Andrew Shore as Don Pasquale, and Zachary Nelson as Doctor Malatesta; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


At Malatesta’s insistence, Pasquale ultimately gives his blessing to a “real” marriage between Ernesto and Norina, even agreeing to a rich 4000 ducat a year stipend for Ernesto.

Both Jackson’s Norina and Nelson’s Malatesta were world-class performances, worthy of any operatic stage.

But that’s not the whole story. Both Nelson and Jackson are graduates of Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA), the prestigious institution that has produced such artists lauded in my reviews as James Morris, Ruth Ann Swenson, Allan Glassman, Joyce DiDonato, Evelyn Pollock, James Valenti, Indra Thomas, Shawn Mathey, Michael Fabiano, Stephen Costello, Ailyn Perez, Ellie Dehn, Bryan Hymel, Latonia Moore, Angela Meade, Michele Angelini and Burak Bilgili.

Two years ago Nelson was a Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Aritst, who, last year, returned as Mozart’s Figaro [See Santa Fe Opera Reverentially Revives “Nozze di Figaro” – June 29, 2013.]

This year, Jackson is an Apprentice Artist, who was chosen to be the cover for Laura Tatulescu’s Norina. The Apprentice Artist directors have confidence that each of this year’s 43 apprentices have extraordinary voices, and those who are selected as covers can step into any role they are covering with confidence.

[Below: Shelley Jackson as Norina; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


(The fact that Jackson has had several lead roles in the highly regarded AVA productions of full length operas certainly would have bolstered such confidence.)

Jackson’s unscheduled debut created a sensation with the Santa Fe Opera audience who applauded her with enthusiasm and gave her (and her colleagues) a heartfelt standing ovation.

Even if Jackson sings only this opening night of the production, the impact of her Santa Fe Opera debut on her career is likely to be considerable.

It is a testament not only to her skills, and the training she received at AVA, but also to the entire system of selecting Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artists, many of whom are chosen with the specific plans for them to sing the smaller roles and/or to cover the larger roles.

[Below: Ernesto (Alek Shrader, atop structure) sings a love duet with Norina (Shelley Jackson, below); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


One additional small role, a faux-notary is played by Ohio bass-baritone Calvin Griffin (also an Apprentice Artist).

The conductor was Corrado Rovaris, whose affinity for Donizetti’s operas (particularly those with vibrant overtures such as “Don Pasquale” and “Roberto Devereux”) was recently on display in Toronto [See my review at Sondra Radvanovsky’s Astounding Virgin Queen in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” – Canadian Opera Company, Toronto, April 25, 2014.]


I recommend this production and cast enthusiastically, both to the veteran opera-goer and to a person new to opera.

An essay on the opera “Don Pasquale”, which the San Diego Opera commissioned me to write for the program for their 2012 production of the opera, appears at:  From the “Barber of Seville” to “Don Pasquale”.

For my review of a performance with an indisposed Norina with a less successful outcome, see: No Norina: A “Don Pasquale” Showstopper in Zurich – September 23, 2007

For my review of David Gately’s “Wild West” production of the opera, see: De Niese, Castronovo, Del Carlo Delight in a Deliriously Daffy “Don Pasquale” – San Diego Opera, March 10, 2012.

For my review of an elegant production of ths opera, utilizing Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s sets and costumes, see: Spirited, Beautifully Sung “Don Pasquale” at Dallas Opera – February 19, 2010.