Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera give the second of six performances of Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera Don Pasquale. The opera has not been performed here since 1984 and has had only seven previous productions, most of which took place between 1938 and 1946 and featured Salvatore Baccaloni in the title role. The current production, which is staged by Laurent Pelly, is being shared with the Santa Fe Opera and the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.
Without overlooking the thoroughly delightful quality of singing in this production, Pelly has to be credited for taking a highly imaginative approach to a narrative that is, on the surface, pretty slim. The main idea is that a misanthropic miser (Pasquale) wants to take a young wife to make sure that his dissolute nephew (Ernesto) does not inherit his wealth. As may be guessed things do not turn out as planned; and, in a curious way, Pelly abets the thwarting of expectations with his approach to staging.
While he never breaks through that notorious “fourth wall of the theater” (the invisible one that separates the audience from the actors), Pelly manages to penetrate just about every other imaginable wall. Mounted on a turnable, Pasquale’s house is blatantly a facade of walls and doors; and characters are just as likely to come and go through where the walls should be as to use the doors themselves. Very early in the action, there is even one moment of peeking around the edge of a wall, confounding the assumption that one person is outside while the other is inside.
Over the course of the opera Pelly keeps playing with this house, to the point of turning the whole thing upside down after the intermission (as a visual metaphor just just how topsy-turvy the events of the play have become). Then there was his decision to provide Ernesto with a wig that gave him a Little Richard look. Pasquale, for his part, pulls out a toupee before he is introduced to the young woman he plans to marry, giving him a look that combined Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Timothy Spall at his most disheveled (think Mr. Turner).
However, in addition to tinkering with the visual, Pelly also endowed the narrative with some imaginative twists. We all know the basic story of a grumpy old miser getting outwitted by a young couple that will marry and live happily. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that, as a narrative, Don Pasquale is a far cry from Donizetti’s earlier romantic comedy L’elisir d’amore. That narrative is not just about two young people, Nemorino and Adina, finding each other; it is also about the growth paths each of them follow along the way. As Pelly tells the story, the growth of Ernesto (Pasquale’s nephew) and Norina (his sweetheart, whom Dr. Malatesta disguises as his own sister Sofronia, out of a convent for the very first time) is far more questionable.
We first see Norina (sung by Heidi Stober) in a room that, in the Sixties, would have been called a “hippie pad.” The place is a mess, and Norina’s appearance is not much better. One almost might think there was a little bit of the slut in her, which makes Malatesta’s disguise for her all the funnier but also leads the dispassionate observer to question Ernesto’s taste in women. Ernesto (Lawrence Brownlee) is only marginally better, since he cannot even pack his bags properly after Pasquale (Maurizio Murano) orders him out of the house. One gets the impression that he thinks he can manage on looks and good fellowship alone (although tenor Brownlee’s exquisite voice definitely endowed Ernesto’s character with a far more valuable asset). These two may get married at the end; but one can see Pelly raising a Spock-like eyebrow at the suggestion that their married life will be happy.
On the other hand, regardless of the character’s types, the music is endowed with good spirits from beginning to end. Admittedly, some of those spirits had already been bottled by Gioachino Rossini, who, in turn, knew how to draw upon Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for his own purposes. Nevertheless, the music is delightful; and conductor Giuseppe Finzi gave it just the spirited account and light touch to support the abundance of engaging singing. Lucas Meachem clearly had fun in presenting Malatesta as the consummate scoundrel; and Murano brought just the right characterization of Pasquale to establish all the give-and-take between the two of them that lies at the heart of the plot. Similarly, Stober’s solo work was the perfect complement to Brownlee’s, making their duos twice as enjoyable.
Nevertheless, what most makes this opera click is Pelly’s vision that it can be more than simple light entertainment. Yes, it is entertaining; and both instrumentally and vocally the light touch is effervescent. However, Pelly escalates the narrative above simplicity, sending us out of the theater a bit more pensive than might be associated with what, on the surface, seems to be little more than a comic romp.