Lively `Don Pasquale' brightens the stage


November 17, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Otherwise perfectly sensible opera-goers have been known to look down their lorgnettes at comic works in the repertoire, as if a little light music and silly antics couldn't possibly add up to high art. Maybe these doughty types just haven't figured out what everyone else learned eons ago - comedy is a lot harder to do successfully than drama.

That goes double for comic opera. The best Italian examples of this genre offer superbly crafted scores, deftly drawn characters and evergreen sitcom plots. They manage to transcend stock elements and achieve something more than just laughs. Donizetti's Don Pasquale is a case in point.

This gem, currently being given a snappy staging by the Baltimore Opera Company, humanizes as it lampoons. The four principals caught up in a marriage/inheritance scheme do not lapse into caricature. They learn something about themselves and about each other. They even reaffirm some venerable values about love and respect and self-limitation. Above all, they entertain, thanks largely to Donizetti's brilliantly nuanced music, which becomes almost another character.

Don Pasquale's virtues as comedy and art do not, of course, just bubble up on their own anytime the opera gets performed. You need gifted singing actors, backed up by knowing direction and stylish conducting. That's precisely what this Baltimore production, which opened Saturday night at the Lyric Opera House, delivers. Even after subtracting points for this or that vocal shortcoming, you're left with a consistently diverting enterprise with vivid music-making and well-timed shtick, all housed in a cute and clever set.

In the title role of the old bachelor who wants to marry and disinherit his nephew, Simone Alaimo offered a fairly sizable bass voice, abundant coloring in his phrasing and seasoned, agile theatrics. He easily suggested Don Pasquale's vanity and gullibility, traits seized upon by his friend Dr. Malatesta, who concocts the trickery that will vaccinate Don Pasquale against the marriage bug and save the nephew's inheritance.

Armando Ariostini practically danced his way around the stage as Malatesta, spreading good humor. The baritone's pitch was often indeterminate, his tone hollow, but his singing still proved effective somehow (note the soft, suave phrasing in Bella siccome un angelo).

After a cool start, Cristina Barbieri warmed up quickly to deliver exceptional vocalism in the role of Norina, the matrimonial matrix who demurely snares Pasquale and then turns into everything he could have ever feared in a bride. The soprano spun out melodic lines with a mix of silk and sparkle, and got into the comic spirit with aplomb.

As Ernesto, Pasquale's nephew and Norina's intended, Harold Gray Meers had trouble filling out the vocal needs of the part, especially in his Act 2 aria. But he knew his way around Donizetti's curving tunes and delivered the offstage Com'e gentil with admirable elegance. Like the others, the tenor's acting had a natural animation well-suited to comedic action. Solid, colorful work came from Brendan Cooke (Notary) and the lively chorus.

Conductor Claudio Desderi had the orchestra scrambling to keep up at the start of the evening. (Another glitch came from the audience; a pregnant pause during the overture was punctuated by a seismic sneeze that generated raucous laughter.) But in short order, Desderi asserted control and sent the score spinning securely and sensitively, inflected with the tempo gradations that bring out the full flavor of Donizetti's music.

Much credit for the production's appeal must be given to Stefano Vizioli's direction and Susanna Rossi-Jost's scenery. As he did two seasons ago for Baltimore Opera's Barber of Seville, Vizioli revealed quite a flair for synchronizing action to music and keeping the eye engaged (here, he gets surprising mileage out of flowers and fruit as props). The elastic set allows the interior and exterior of Pasquale's house to appear quickly, at one point literally shutting Ernesto out of his uncle's life. Attractive costumes by Roberta Guidi di Bagno and nicely judged lighting by Jason Robinson add considerably to the proceedings.

The biggest treat comes in Act 3, when an army of servants is seen in a massive kitchen gossiping about all the strange goings-on since Pasquale took a wife. What would be just a choral scene in many a production is magically transformed into a little visual tour de force.

Don Pasquale

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Nov. 23

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Admission: $37 to $132

Call: 410-727-6000

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