Friday, July 10, 2015

Hooray for Hollywood! Cincinnati Opera stages a spirited update of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale"

In stage director Chuck Hudson's striking concept of "Don Pasquale," the main character is well past believing he's as great as he ever was, that it's the pictures that got small.

That Norma Desmond bitterness is only hinted at in a production that owes something to the bleak atmosphere of "Sunset Boulevard." The nostalgic, gray man-cave "The Sovereign of the Silver Screen" has built for himself is the milieu for pervasive Hollywood spoofery soon after the curtain goes up on Cincinnati Opera's production of the 1843 comic opera by Gaetano Donizetti.

The one bit of vanity clinging to the updated hero is that his confirmed bachelorhood is worth ending as he approaches 70. The way his Tinseltown career soared, then crashed and burned, is sketched in with cleverly designed film clips, made to look ancient and used as interludes.

Pasquale and Malatesta look forward to the star's departure from wedlock.
A star of the silents doomed by a talkie-resistant voice (an imaginative stretch for characterization by an opera singer!), Pasquale became an inept director. He's retired to his mansion by the mid-fifties, when the action takes place. His idea of home decor is shelved stacks of movie reels in their dusty cans. So much satire has been directed at him by the set design and the invented film-clip biography that there doesn't seem to be much left to make fun of.

This is where Donizetti's buoyant music comes in. And, thanks to Burak Bilgili's lively portrayal, Pasquale remains mockable, subject to just punishment for his insistence on controlling his lovesick nephew, Ernesto. Here's the biggest obstacle to this updating's credibility: Every generation has its control-freak powerful people, but the drama of "Don Pasquale" depends on the social convention of arranged marriage being thwarted by true love. This opera doesn't demand realism, of course, but it's hard to place arranged marriage credibly in the Hollywood of just six decades past. I suppose it works to see it as a metaphor for the tyranny the old studio system exercised over underlings' lives.

Ernesto, beautifully sung and acted by Ji-Min Park in a company debut, pursues the starlet Norina with a doggedness always threatened by despair. His acting in the second-act recitative and aria Cerchero lontana terra was as solid as his singing. The singing had to contend with Hudson's  comical suicide scenarios, but Park executed them well. Similarly, the tenor was challenged to make a strong vocal impression with the third-act serenade, Com' รจ gentil, singing offstage while Pasquale is being teased by family friend Dr. Malatesta with some Marcel Marceau tricks too hard to describe here. Park came through just fine, despite the incessant funny business.

Alexey Lavrov, also making a Cincinnati Opera debut in this production, was a hearty, conspiratorial Malatesta — the kind of bluff double-dealer who always succeeds in high-pressure environments like Hollywood. Even when he was required to do a lot of Count Dracula-like cape-flapping as the plot thickens (most of it to hide Ernesto from Pasquale's view), he had star-quality flair.  The great comic duet in the third act, with Malatesta simulating a firm alliance with Pasquale, was brought off with immense buffo vigor — with a built-in encore of its finale drawing a huge ovation.
Norina and Ernesto finally celebrate the overcoming of obstacles.

As Norina, Eglise Gutierrez displayed an adroit if somewhat "covered" soprano; I missed hearing a "bloom" comparable to Park's. She made for a wily co-conspirator of Malatesta's, pretending to be his ex-nun sister Sofronia, and transformed herself believably into an extravagant, scolding bride. She didn't quite fit the mold of a nubile starlet, despite her well-staged first appearance, reading romantic fiction in her bubble bath.  A slighter, more vulnerable-looking figure who becomes a shrewish wife in order to escape an unwanted marriage would have made the silly plot really pop.

Paul Scholten sputtered and whined appropriately in the small but crucial role of the Notary. The chorus, outfitted with Hollywood extravagance as partying celebrities, sang with gusto. Three nonspeaking servant roles were well-filled (by Buz Davis, Brad Duban, and Betsi Brockmeier) to carry out much of the director's devotion to the classic pantomime of Marcel Marceau.

What a swell party this is: Hollywood guests enjoy themselves at Pasquale's.
Richard Buckley managed things well from the pit, where the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra played with character and spirit. Fast tempos sometimes made things a little blurry between voices and accompaniment, however. Lyrical passages, and such effective structures as the second-act quartet, with its Pasquale outburst interrupting, were gratifying.

The moralizing finale was well put-together on all fronts, as Pasquale accepts from Norina the return of his cherished silent-star trophy, giving up his trophy wife to the ever-eager Ernesto.

Thus Hollywood, a distant if loyal inheritor of the resolved vicissitudes of the comic-opera genre, is assured of one more happy ending.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]