Wit, charm and brilliance, times two

Baltimore Opera Company and Opera Vivente bring a comic double-header to city audiences this month.

Classical Music

October 07, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

A rich old man determined to marry an uninterested younger woman who will do anything to hook up with her real love, making use of conspiratorial help from other men along the way. Such is the standard stuff of which comic opera has been made. But like I Love Lucy, even routine situations become awfully funny in the right hands -- or music.

Audiences will be reminded of this as two of the greatest Italian comic operas in the repertoire, Gioacchino Rossini's The Barber of Seville and Gaetano Donizetti's Don Pasquale, are presented by the Baltimore Opera Company and Opera Vivente, respectively. It's a neat opportunity to take in a pair of like-minded, like-plotted masterworks, to savor the distinctive genius of their composers.

Both Barber and Pasquale were preceded by acclaimed operas that had involved the same basic story outlines. But unlike originality-challenged Hollywood, forever remaking inferior versions of classic films, the opera world's history of rehashing tends to be more effective.

A lot of people in 1816 couldn't imagine how Rossini could improve on Giovanni Paisiello's The Barber of Seville of 1782 (one of at least a half-dozen operas based on the same subject before Rossini got to it, by the way). But it didn't take long for audiences to realize which work was superior.

Second time's a charm

By the same token, there may have been some folks who had a soft spot for Stefano Pavesi's Ser Marc'Antonio, which had been a huge hit in 1810, but when the curtain came down after the premiere of Don Pasquale, Donizetti's version of the same plot in 1843, it was "Stefano who?"

There is another intriguing similarity between Barber and Pasquale. The fortunes of both changed in 24 hours. In the case of Rossini's opera, the opening night in Rome was a fiasco of legendary proportions. There was a combination of very bad luck -- one singer tripped and fell over a trap door, a cat got loose onstage, etc. -- and a nasty audience, half of them out for blood on behalf of the still-living Paisiello, the rest annoyed because the performance wasn't being held in their favorite theater.

The next night, an audience with the novel intention of actually listening to the new opera had a ball. Barber's fate was secure.

In the case of Pasquale, the dark clouds were over the final dress rehearsal, when high spirits and optimism are most needed. Instead, orchestra members, who had already defaced their scores with obscene drawings of Donizetti, refused to applaud the composer; cast and management were likewise muted. There was nothing but silence in the Paris theater after that last run-through.

Only Donizetti seemed confident, and rightly so. Once the public had a taste of the opera the next night, the cheers were deafening.

In both cases, the enthusiasm, which has never really faded, can be traced not just to the amusing ingredients in the plots, but the wit, charm and sheer brilliance of the music.

Barber is essentially the prequel to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, introducing us to the principal characters of Almaviva and Rosina when they are first in love and the wily servant / barber named Figaro who helps them outmaneuver her guardian, Doctor Bartolo, and the devious Don Basilio. Rossini reveals the nature of each character as much through the music as the words.

Two of the most obvious examples: Figaro's famous entrance aria, with its breathless litany of all the customers clamoring for his services; and Don Basilio's "Calumny Aria," with its deliciously buzzing string sounds in the orchestra as the slimy man espouses the virtues of slowly spreading innuendo until, like the outburst of a cannon (cue the bass drum), it explodes around its victim.

Then there is Rosina's first aria, which reveals her beguiling ability and fierce determination, both condensed into a single "but" (in Italian, ma, which an imaginative singer can milk for all its worth).

If there is a weakness in Barber, it's the absence of three-dimensional characterizations, the sort that elevates The Marriage of Figaro far above the merely comical. There's never a point in Barber when we don't know we're in an operatic sitcom; there are several points in Figaro when real sentiment and even some suffering gives us a more personal connection to the action.

Feeling with the farce

One of the best things about Don Pasquale is how, it, too, adds a touch of genuine feeling to what is otherwise a farcical arena. Donizetti doesn't reach Mozart's profundity, but he does find a way of letting the music take us beneath the surface of the simple plot.

In this comedy, Ernesto wants to marry Norina, a young widow. His uncle, Don Pasquale, disapproves. Pasquale is so nasty he decides to get married himself, thus disinheriting Ernesto.

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