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A Gold Rush of Guffaws

San Diego
Civic Center
03/10/2012 -  & 13, 16, 18 March 2012
Gaetano Donizetti: Don Pasquale
John Del Carlo (Don Pasquale), Danielle de Niese (Norina), Charles Castronovo (Ernesto), Jeff Mattsey (Dr. Malatesta), Robert Dahey (Hop Sing), David Marshman (Notary)
San Diego Opera Chorus, Charles F. Prestinari (Chorus Master), San Diego Opera Orchestra, Jeff Thayer (Concertmaster), Marco Guidarini (Conductor)
David Gately (Director), Tony Fanning (Scenic Designer), Helen E. Rodgers (Costume Designer), Harry Frehner (Lighting Designer), Steven W. Bryant (Wig and Makeup Designer)

(© Ken Howard)

Comedy, ah yes, that recessive trait within the confines of opera can be pretty buffoonish, spoofy and slapstick at times. And though Rossini’s predominant opera buffa, Il barbiere di Sigivlia (1816) instantaneously comes to mind, Gaetano Donizetti was no pushover when it came to providing delicious humor to its audiences. Don Pasquale’s premiere at Paris’ Théâtre-Italien in 1843 was a bittersweet moment for a man whose farcical composition was a complete hit during an insidious bout of syphilis that led to his eventual demise five years later.

Irrespective of a silly irrelevant plot, Donizetti’s intent was to create a score showcasing vocal acumens of the day’s shining stars. This David Gately 2002 Don Pasquale is set during California’s mid 19th century Gold Rush (reminding us of Giancarlo Del Monaco’s wonderful 1991 production of La Fanciulla del West) that makes for a hokey but richly rough-hewn backdrop. Known for dressing up American premieres of lesser known works such as Bizet’s La Jolie fille de Perth, Catalani’s La Wally and Nielsen’s Maskarade, Helen E. Rodgers provides this Don Pasquale an appropriate color pallet befitting the wild wild West.

(© Ken Howard)

Despite a few cracking horns in opening measures and a tad sluggish Overture, Marco Guidarini quickly picks up the tempo that keeps actors on their toes. What’s decidedly delightful in this Don Pasquale is that it is not over embellished. John Del Carlo comfortably fits into the slippers of a wealthy old gentleman in pursuit of a younger companion. Jeff Mattsey, a General George Custer lookalike, has challenges in projection and quality, specifically in the Act I duet with Norina, “Pronto io son”, in which he tends to shout words instead of singing them. His inconsistent voice is lost whenever he turns sideways, and he occasionally disappears into the orchestral shuffle. Del Carlo and Mattsey create a splendid “Aspetta, aspetta” to resounding applause. It’s always a pleasure to see Charles Castronovo return and, in this case, as the youthful and naïve Ernesto. His buttery notes emanate gracefully into the air, and his Act III serenade is terrific.

(© Ken Howard)

But the evening’s powerhouse is debuting Danielle de Niese in the role of the contumacious Norina. Fresh off the stage as Ariel in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production, The Enchanted Island, the soubrette manages the crafty complexities of Donizetti’s music with unblemished lightness and textured frivolity. Nowhere in the opera do we ever miss out on de Niese’s microscopic detail of nuances or seductive gesticulations; her acciaccatura in the cavatina, “Quel guardo il cavaliere”, is impeccable and Gately’s blocking is fresh, amusing and energetic. Danielle de Niese is a first-rate performer.

(© Ken Howard)

Without its Western theme, this Don Pasquale wouldn’t have offered us the character Hop Sing acted by Robert Dahey. Credited with numerous television appearances, Dahey reprises his role as the Coolie mime sidekick that adds the right touch of heightened humor and occasional chuckles. Charles Prestinari’s chorus is in good hands with Hop Sing directing all the servants in the Act III opening.

Anyone who has had an inkling to introduce opera to a neophyte would do well by taking him/her to Don Pasquale for Gaetano Donizetti gave us a precious gift of happiness…they’ll love you for it. Five gold stars!

Christie Grimstad



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