The superbly melodic operas of Gaetano Donizetti represent a triumph of the human spirit over extreme adversities. Long before syphilis and bipolar disorder drove him into an insane asylum and then early death at age 51 in 1848, he had a complicated, difficult life, but his music is often happy, always beautiful.
Even in case of “Don Pasquale,” a potentially sad story about punishing a foolish old man searching for love, the music buoys and exhilarates. And so it is at Don Pasquale, San Francisco Opera’s new presentation, (link), which opened in the War Memorial on Sept. 28 – with some musical and vocal values winning over silly (and presumably expensive) over-production. Even with revolving set, endlessly repeated shticks, pratfalls, and the like, give me Donizetti any time if it has:
* Maurizio Muraro in the title role, the Italian bass-baritone sounding and acting (even while forced into directorial excesses) more like the “real Pasquale” than any other singer I know, regardless of their fame. Muraro’s singing is natural and effortless, the timbre is exactly right, his acting is unpretentious, his interplay with other cast members unselfconscious.
* Another star from Italy, Giuseppe Finzi, (link) , who returned to San Francisco to lead an initially slow, but eminently musical performance, always supportive of the singers. Among fine performances in the pit, a standout was principal trumpet Adam Luftman’s obbligato, “costarring” in Ernesto’s Act II aria, “Com’è gentil.”
* Surprisingly and prominently, two dozen members of the S.F. Opera Chorus made their mark in two Act II scenes, receiving well-earned applause each time for their big sound and passionate participation. The surprise is the acknowledgement of brief choral scenes by the audience – a discerning one in this case.
The rest of the cast did well: Heidi Stober as Norina, Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto (with a beautiful, small lyric tenor), and Lucas Meachem as the confident, dominant Dr. Malatesta.
The production – in association with Santa Fe Opera and Barcelona’s Teatre del Liceu – is by Laurent Pelly, who said he was inspired by Italian film comedies from the 1950s, and that he wanted to emphasize some of the darker elements in the opera, such as Norina’s aggression, Ernesto as a freeloader, and Malatesta’s ambiguity beyond helping out the young lovers. Those intentions are fine, but what the audience sees are endlessly repeated contrived bits of stage business.
As a stage director, Pelly uses excessive physicality (which works for the chorus scenes, but not for individuals), and community-theater “inventions,” such as singers having a choice of doors, but going around them – mildly amusing at first, but not for the umpteenth time. For comic operas, especially Donizetti’s, a cardinal rule is “don’t push the river”… and Pelly does, causing distraction approaching irritation.
Chantal Thomas’s sets are initially interesting and painterly, faintly reminiscent of Giorgio de Chirico, but the complex centerpiece on the turntable ends up becoming a show in itself without justification. A turntable should speed up the production, eliminating long pauses between scenes, but it does not need to compete for the audience’s attention. Not when Donizetti is in the house.