Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Don Pasquale
Minnesota Opera
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of R. L. Stine's Goosebumps, the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium, The Minotaur, and Tick, Tick... Boom! and Kit's review of All the Way


Craig Colclough, Andrew Wilkowske,
and David Walton

Photo by Dan Norman
Five performances of Gaetano Donizetti's Don Pasquale, recently presented over the past ten days, launched Minnesota Opera's 2017-2018 season on a high note of musicianship, design, execution and sheer entertainment that sets a high bar for the remainder of their season. Stage director Chuck Hudson's imaginative conceptualization of the work and a quartet of exquisite vocalists in the lead roles made this an unforgettable night at the opera.

Don Pasquale premiered in 1843 in Paris and was an immediate success and hailed as Donizetti's comic masterpiece. Along with The Barber of Seville by Rossini and The Elixir of Love, also by Donizetti, Don Pasquale was considered the apex of the late 18th and early 19th century comic opera style known as Opera Boffo. These drew upon the structure of commedia dell'arte, with its four recognizable comic character types: a buffoon with a bloated sense of self-importance; a heartsick young man who pines for the object of his love; a wily, high-spirited woman; and a schemer who orchestrates the action.

Hudson transported these characters closer to an era that today's audiences can identify with: 1950s Hollywood. He has made Don Pasquale (the buffoon) an over-the-hill star of silent movies, always scheming for his big comeback, a la Norma Desmond. Extending the motif, Hudson framed the opera scenes with footage of Don Pasquale's faux screen career—his biggest hit, The Sheik of Arabia and other early triumphs, and disastrous later works, with failed attempts to score big in science fiction and westerns that only made him look more obsolete. These were filmed in black and white with the jerky camera work typical of early cinema. The hilarious film clips served to a) entertain, b) let us know everything to follow was meant as a lark, and c) establish Don Pasquale as the buffoon of the piece. The motif of early film even extended to the stage that greeted the audience upon entering the Ordway. Rather than an actual stage curtain, projected on a screen spanning the wide stage was an image of a silver-grey theater curtain, like those in the movie palaces of earlier eras. The curtain undulated where it met the floor as if ready to fling open, creating heightened anticipation for the magic of the movies to capture our hearts.

Hudson first staged this vision of Don Pasquale at Arizona Opera in 2014, and again last season at The Atlanta Opera. Minnesota Opera's production benefited from Hudson's continued refinement of his concept, as well as from the costumes, scenery, film projections and props that travelled here from Arizona. The costumes included outfitting the sixteen-member chorus to resemble popular entertainment figures of the 1950s who would be likely to hob-nob with a showbiz luminary like Don Pasquale. Some of these were a little harder to place than others (hey, I was just a wee child in the 1950s), but easy to pin down were Groucho Marx, Clark Gabel, John Wayne in western cavalry garb, and Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows in their signature roles as Ralph and Alice Kramden.

The plot of Don Pasquale is both convoluted and simplistic. The aging film star has chosen a wealthy bride for his nephew and intended heir, Ernesto (the heartsick young man). However, Ernesto spurns the match, for he is in love with a Hollywood starlet named Norina (the wily, high spirited woman). Considering Norina unsuitable and angry at his nephew for refusing to obey his wishes, Don Pasquale cuts off Ernesto's support and decides to produce his own heir by finding a bride of his own. He consults his physician, Dr. Malatesta (the schemer), who thinks Don Pasquale is being extremely foolish and unfair. To make that point, Dr. Malatesta concocts a plot to trick Don Pasquale by inventing a woman so perfect, Don Pasquale will be ready to marry her sight unseen.

The doctor then recruits Norina to play the part of this fictional "perfect" woman. She is presented at first as a virginal, compliant maiden. Dr. Malatesta also has in tow an actor to play the part of a notary who conducts a sham wedding ceremony. As soon as the marriage is sealed, the "bride" transforms into a willful, extravagant reveler. She redoes the Don's darkly subdued home to resemble a Miami Beach hotel lobby, spends recklessly on clothes, jewelry, and entertaining (hence the chorus of celebrities), belittles the Don's aging masculinity and insists on going out on the town with handsome Ernesto as her escort. Things finally become intolerable for Don Pasquale, who begs Dr. Malatesta for relief. Without completely giving away the ending, I can assure you that it concludes happily for all four principals.

Bass-baritone Craig Colclough, who played Don Pasquale, has a majestic voice. Moreover, his performance was sublimely comic, preening with vanity as he prepared to seek a bride, taking delight in besting his recalcitrant nephew, and suffering all kinds of agony under the thumb of his willful and demeaning wife. Andrew Wilkowske was deliciously devious as Dr. Malatesta, exuding delight in putting the pompous old codger in his place, and energized by his mischief-making. A scene in which he flourished a long cape in order to hide Ernesto from Don Pasquale was terrific physical comedy. Wilkowske, too, has a phenomenal voice. A comic duet sung by Wilkowske and Colclough was one of the highlights of the evening, leading to a break in the fourth wall as they returned to stage coaxing the obliging audience to request an encore.

Susannah Biller played Norina, her powerful soprano beautifully delivering her character's part while she had a field day switching personas between her roles as the demure maiden, the shrewish wife, and her free-wheeling actual self. As Ernesto, tenor David Walton has the most glorious voice of the four—which is really saying something. He sang his part with passion, conveying Ernesto's indignation at being disowned by his uncle because of the woman he loves, and his romantic yearnings for that woman. Walton and Biller shared a love duet that was another of the opera's stand-out moments.

Unusual for an opera, Ian Christiansen played Max, a character that is completely silent, the head of Don Pasquale's household staff. In his program notes Hudson related the opportunity he had to study with the great mime, Marcel Marceau. The use of stylized movement, with exaggerated gestures and responses to people and events, so central to Marceau's work, was incorporated into all of the characters, but was the sole substance of the role of Max, and was well presented in Christiansen's performance.

Every aspect of the creative team's work was excellent and conceived with immense wit. In addition to the celebrity look-alikes, the costumes designed for Norina were exquisite, and a suit that was completely covered by the bills rung up by Don Pasquale's spend-thrift wife was a clever visual joke. Set, lighting, and sound design were likewise all top drawer. Jonathan Brandani conducted an orchestra of fifty musicians that played Donizetti's score beautifully, conveying the characters' states of romance, foolishness, exuberance and anger through the music.

The stated moral of Don Pasquale is that it is folly to marry in old age. Today, Don Pasquale, who mentions that he is near 70, would be considered an older man, but certainly not aged. In any case, most of us no longer hold stock in the idea that love is only for the young. What may be more pointed is the folly of marrying for vanity, rather than for love. Still, not the strongest moral argument for our day and age with so many raging moral issues. Perhaps the true moral is that this buffet of glorious voices, sterling musicianship, creative conceptualization and staging, and abundant good-hearted humor was a generous gift that only a fool as foolish as Don Pasquale would turn away.

Don Pasquale played October 7, 2017 through October 15, 2017, for Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. For information and tickets for upcoming productions call 612-333-6699 or go to www.mnopera.org.

Music: Gaetano Donizetti; Libretto: Giovanni Ruffini and Gaetano Donizetti >; Stage Director: Chuck Hudson; Conductor: Jonathan Brandani; Assistant Director: David Radamés Toro; Chorusmaster: Matthew Abernathy; Set Design: Peter Nolle; Costume Design: Kathleen Trott; Lighting Design: Thomas C. Hase; Projections Design: Doug Provost; Wig and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Répétiteurs: Jessica Hall and Lindsay Woodward; English Captions: Arizona Opera; Stage Manager: Jamie K. Fuller.

Cast: Susannah Biller (Norina), Ian Christiansen (Max), Craig Colclough (Don Pasquale), William clay Thompson (A Notary), David Walton (Ernesto) and Andrew Wilkowske (Dr. Malatesta).


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