Seriously, folks: Lyric Opera’s ‘Don Pasquale’ is no cheap joke
BY ANDREW PATNER November 25, 2012 9:02PM
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (left) sings the title role in Donizetti's "Don Pasquale," with (from left) Corey Crider as Dr. Malatesta, Marlis Petersen as Norina and Rene Barbera as Ernesto. I Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media
When: Through Dec. 15
Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Info: (312) 332-2244; lyricopera.org
Updated: December 27, 2012 6:27AM
On paper, the scheduling of Donzetti’s 1842 opera buffa “Don Pasquale” in a theater’s season can conjure ideas of cost-saving (there are only four solo roles, and basic sets and costumes are readily available), soprano du jour promotion (the Metropolitan Opera has featured Anna Netrebko in two recent revivals) or indifference in the pit and focus on broad comedy on stage.
Instead, the Lyric Opera of Chicago production that opened Sunday afternoon qualifies as the fourth superb season installment in a row at the Civic Opera House this season. A strong and well-balanced cast including a soprano known more for connoisseurs’ work is a full partner with guest conductor Stephen Lord and the excellent Lyric Orchestra in demonstrating what a superbly crafted and complex score this work has. And in his Lyric directorial debut, veteran English baritone Thomas Allen stages the work to match the score as well. Never failing to be funny or fun, Allen’s vision never stoops to low comedy or exaggeration. There’s a reason this work has endured for 190 years: It’s a serious examination of the human comedy.
The story, co-adapted freely from a Ben Johnson play by the composer himself, concerns an aging urban bachelor who decides to cut off his nephew as his dependent and take a young bride himself. Don Pasquale’s friend and doctor, Malatesta, and nephew Ernesto’s ladyfriend, Norina, determine to teach Pasquale a life lesson and allow Ernesto to proceed both in marrying Norina and receiving his expected inheritance. They will pass Norina off as Malatesta’s sister, the selected wife for Pasquale, and when the (faked) marriage appears to go through, Pasquale’s dusty household will be turned upside down by its new mistress, putting the old man back in his appropriate place.
But this is no slapstick. Two Lyric Ryan Center alumni, Kentucky-born baritone Corey Crider as Malatesta and Texas-native tenor Rene Barbera as Ernesto, both know that their first numbers — “Bella siccome un angelo” (Beautiful as an angel) and “Sogno soave e casto” (Dream sweet and chaste), respectively — are real pieces of music that make clear the seriousness of their characters’ situations. And even Pasquale, as alternately strutted and shuffled by Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, is shown not to be a lech but a man with delayed desires that now fall outside of his biological clock. Norina has even more layers as the others as she must also play “Sofronia,” the invented bride who turns from convent-shy to stepping-out spendthrift. German soprano Marlis Petersen, last seen at Lyric four years ago as a brilliant Lulu in Alban Berg’s modernist tragedy, gets these layers and sings with both a sureness and a delicacy that match her characters.
Wigmaster and makeup designer Sarah Hatten deserves special mention for transforming D’Arcangelo, 43 and with dark, matinee-idol looks, into the washed-out Don. Barking a bit at the start and in recitatives, D’Arcangelo comes fully into his own in the famous Act 3 patter duet “Cheti, cheti, immantinente” with Crider, whom he gets to match him when their impossible narrations are laid on top of each other. Barbera, who has been winning competitions left and right, here has his first real leading role at Lyric, and he both rises to the occasion and never milks the part or the high notes. Though the appearances of the chorus are brief, it is terrific that Lyric has not cut them out. They’re a hoot.
Lord is a delight at the podium, knowing that Donizetti’s music is real music, influencing everything from the dance to “My Fair Lady” to Nino Rota’s Fellini film scores. Ernesto’s Act 2 “Cerchero lontana terra” (I will go to a distant land) has a mournful solo trumpet introduction and line that is heartbreaking. The late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s period sets and costumes are well-traveled and adapted over the years but fine. Christine Binder’s lighting plays key plot roles.
NOTE: Lyric will present its first-ever family-focused production, “Popcorn & Pasquale,” on Sunday afternoon Dec. 2 with Chicago and Broadway actor Ross Lehman providing a streamlined narration of “Don Pasquale.” with the full “adult” cast repeating their vocal performances.
Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7).