Donizetti’s comic masterpiece received its final performance of the season by the Santa Fe Opera on August 22, 2014. Laurent Pelly’s production is a collaboration with Barcelona’s Liceu and the San Francisco Opera. Pelly set the action in Post World War II Rome rather than the Rome of 100 years earlier. The time change was not noticeable in the madcap action that was more Hellzapoppin than bel canto.
There was so much stage business that it was hard to concentrate on Donizetti’s beautiful score. The singers were forced to crawl along the stage, jump up and down and any chair sight – there were almost as many on stage as in the auditorium, and do mostly silly stuff. Pelly was particularly hard on the tenor (Alek Shrader) who who had to sing while carrying four suit cases, while climbing up and down a very high ladder, and while hanging by his legs upside down from a window ledge.
As seems to be the norm in opera today, the production was a distraction from from the essence of the work. Donizetti needs just a little bit from the production team as his score easily carries the day on its own. About the only good idea from the production team was turning the main room in Don Pasquale’s house 180° from its original orientation in the first scene of Act 3- shades of Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding. The conceit fits Don Pasquale’s topsy-turvy world following his “marriage” to a much younger woman. But then Pelly made a hash of things by ruing one of comic opera’s most poignant moments – when Norina slaps Don Pasquale. This episode is set to the most moving music that can be found in opera buffa. Pasquale realizes the weight of his years and the foolishness of his situation. Norina is almost as upset as the Don realizing that she has taken a joke too far. What happened was action where there should have been stasis. Lackeys continued to bring bouquets on stage which Norina fussed over instead of allowing the one serious moment in the opera to be felt.
Musically, the show was a delight, with one exception. Alek Shrader is singing at many of the world’s leading opera houses. But he has a major problem; he doesn’t know how to sing. His voice is pinched, emitted at great pressure, and with equally great strain. He has a pleasant sound, but his voice will soon be gone if he doesn’t completely redo his basic vocal technique. He’s young and attractive. He got by in this production not because of his singing, which was sub par, but because of the zany antics sent him by an over attentive director.
The best singing came from 27 year old baritone Zachary Nelson. The young baritone has a rich and bright voice that suggest that he will grow into the big Italian baritone roles as he matures. His stage presence was equally impressive. A singer to watch.
Shelley Jackson who is one of the company’s apprentice singers ended up singing most of the Norinas in the run of Don Pasquale. She has a large and agile lyric soprano that has advanced far beyond the apprentice level. She gave as spirited a performance as Pelly’s manic direction allowed. Another comer.
Andrew Shore is a 62 year old British basso who has made most of his career in England. His vocal resources are modest, but he has Don Pasquale down pat. His impersonation of the 69 year old bachelor who wants a young wife, but who hasn’t thought through what he would do with one should she materialize was funny and moving. He got just about everything out of the role that Donizetti put in. A fine performance.
Conductor Corrado Rovaris was born in Bergamo, Donizetti’s home town. He led a bright and spirited rendition of his compatriot’s masterful opera, the last of Italy’s great opere buffe. Perhaps there was a little too much drum and bit of hypertrophy that could have been excised, but on balance a splendid job. In summary, a very good performance of a great opera, one that was better to listen to than to watch.
Ernesto – Alek Shrader
Dr. Malatesta – Zachary Nelson
Don Pasquale – Andrew Shore
Norina – Shelley Jackson
A Notary – Calvin Griffin
Conductor – Corrado Rovaris
Director – Laurent Pelly
Scenic Designer – Chantal Thomas
Costume Designer – Laurent Pelly
Lighting Designer – Duane Schuler
Chorus Master – Susanne Sheston