Arts & Events

The Topsy-Turvy World of DON PASQUALE

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday September 30, 2016 - 03:18:00 PM

In San Francisco Opera’s new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, which opened Wednesday, September 28, an old codger, one Don Pasquale, gets his world turned topsy-turvy when he foolishly weds, or thinks he weds, a much younger woman. However, the wedding itself is a mock ceremony designed by Don Pasquale’s physician, Dr. Malatesta, to trick Don Pasquale and demonstrate to the old codger that he is better off not getting married at his advanced age. There, in a nutshell, is the basic plot of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, an opera buffa composed late in Donizetti’s illustrious career. 

Conducted by Giuseppe Finzi and staged by director Laurent Pelly, this Don Pasquale boasts a uniformly splendid cast. Italian bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro is superb in the title role; baritone Lucas Meachem unerringly portrays the scheming Dr. Malatesta; soprano Heidi Stober does a star-turn as Don Pasquale’s would-be bride, Norina; and tenor Lawrence Brownlee makes a stunning SF Opera debut as Norina’s young lover, Ernesto. Rounding out the cast is veteran bass-baritone Bojan Kneževic as the fake notary summoned to perform the mock wedding. 

Dr. Malatesta’s plan to trick Don Pasquale centers on having Norina pretend to be the doctor’s sister, Sofronia, just released from a convent and offered to Don Pasquale as his prospective bride. The ulterior motive behind this plan is not simply to teach Don Pasquale a lesson, but also to pave the way for the young but impoverished nephew of Don Pasquale, Ernesto, to gain the don’s permission to marry Norina and receive as a wedding gift a considerable portion of the don’s great wealth. To accomplish all this, Dr. Malatesta coaches Norina to pretend to be the extremely shy, convent-raised Sofronia when she meets Don Pasquale, then turn on him and take the upper hand as soon as she’s ‘married’ to him. This abrupt turnaround takes place at the beginning of Act III, and here director Laurent Pelly literally turns Don Pasquale’s world topsy-turvy. The chandelier which hung from the ceiling in the first two Acts now is placed on the floor; and a shabby upholstered chair in the don’s living room now hangs upside down from the ceiling.  

As Norina/Sofronia, soprano Heidi Stober was magnificent. Never has her clear, bright soprano been shown off to better advantage than here. When we first see her as Norina, Stober’s character is full of restless energy, pacing back and forth in anxiety over a letter she has just received from Ernesto bidding her a sad farewell. Norina loves Ernesto and is desperate at the news of her beloved’s imminent departure. Stober launched into her monologue with great passion and vocal agility, expressing her emotions in exquisite bel canto vocalism. Later, when portraying the shy Sofronia, Stober toned down her voice, reducing it to a modest whisper. Still later, once ‘married’ to Don Pasquale, Stober turned herself into a veritable she-devil, bossing the old codger around and imposing her will in every aspect of managing his household.  

In the role of Don Pasquale, Italian bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro gave a sterling performance, at once decrepit with age yet vain and full of bravado that he might yet marry and have children, even at the age of seventy. A winning touch in his efforts to appear younger was his donning a wig that looked for all the world like a Donald Trump wig. Muraro gave a highly nuanced vocal performance, his voice now brimming with hope and false confidence, later whining, befuddled and pitiful when he sees what his bride is really like.  

As young Ernesto, tenor Lawrence Brownlee was impressive in his San Francisco debut. Brownlee’s bel canto vocalism, his richly textured tone and extremely wide range stood him in good stead as Ernesto, a character who runs the gamut of emotional mood-swings. In director Laurent Pelly’s staging, Ernesto is portrayed as a somewhat lazy freeloader, and Brownlee lounged around the set convincingly in this interpretation. Yet Brownlee’s singing was ever clear, brimming with vocal color, and powerful. Here, in Lawrence Brownlee, is a major bel canto talent! 

Lucas Meachem , as always, gave a stalwart performance. He winningly portrayed the scheming Dr. Malatesta, his baritone voice brimming with energy as he brilliantly schemed to outwit Don Pasquale and bring Norina and Ernesto together. In the end, Malatesta’s plan works to perfection. When he reveals to Don Pasquale that the marriage was a hoax, the don is so relieved to learn that he is not legally married to Norina/Sofronia that he agrees to let Norina and Ernesto marry and offers them a generous wedding gift.  

Conductor Giuseppe Finzi led the orchestra in a brisk rendition of the score, and Chorus Director Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus sang well as the many servants hired by Norina/Sofronia to run Don Pasquale’s household. The spare sets were designed by Chantal Thomas. Don Pasquale continues with five more performances through October 15.