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Donizetti Hits the Right Note with Season Opener

San Jose
Montgomery Theatre
09/06/2003 -  7, 9, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21, 25, 27, and 28 September, 2003
Gaetano Donizetti: Don Pasquale
Jesse Merlin/David Cox (Don Pasquale), Sandra Rubalcava/Kimarie Torre (Norina), Joseph Muir/Joshua LaForce (Ernesto), Jason Detwiler/Joseph Wright (Malatesta), Bill Welch (Notary)
Opera San Jose Orchestra and Chorus, Anthony Quartuccio (conductor)
Josemaria Condemi (stage director)

Donizetti's frothy comedy Don Pasquale is strongly rooted in the commedia dell'arte tradition. The plot revolves around Don Pasquale, an elderly gentleman, and his plans to marry a young bride, Norina. At the same time Pasquale intends to disinherit his sole heir, Ernesto, a nephew who happens to be in love with the same Norina. Together with the help of their mutual friend, Dr. Malatesta, all the participants plot to accomplish their conflicting intentions. Being a comedy, of course it all ends happily with the young lovers united with Don Pasquale's blessing.
In a new production staged for Opera San Jose's opening production, stage director Josemaria Condemi opted for an approach that tied in closely with the plot's commedia origins. The principals for the most part all played their roles as character types rather than as human individuals. Moments of humanity appears appropriately from time to time, but for the most part, these are broadly sketched cartoon characters caught up in a plot that threatens to spin out of control.
Condemi's direction is filled with inventive staging and the performers respond with whole-hearted enthusiasm and vibrant energy. Together they fill the opera with plenty of zest and charm. Touching moments also get their due though, and in particular the moment in Act Three when Norina, playing the tempestuous minx goes so far as to slap Don Pasquale. Both of them realize things have gone too far; she expresses sorry at having pushed Pasquale so far while still determined to win out for the sake of her love for Ernesto. Pasquale also realizes finally that the plan to marry was a big mistake and that he'd best make amends. Condemi's staging and direction sensitively scaled the moment to give it the right touch of pathos for it to stand in contrast to the whirlwind of activity the story generates.
The youthful cast of Opera San Jose resident company members in the principal roles included Jesse Merlin as Don Pasquale, Sandra Rubalcava as Norina, Joseph Muir as Ernesto and Jason Detwiler as Malatesta. Donizetti wrote Don Pasquale for the celebrate "Puritani Quartet", four of the most celebrated, accomplished singers of the era. And as such the music demands every bit as much from the cast as singers as the plot does from the cast as actors.
The role of Norina suited Rubalcava superbly and she reveled in both its challenges and opportunities. Her natural vivacity and charisma coupled with the role's sparkling vocal writing resulted in a performance that was a joy from the first note to the last. Here was a singer whose flair for coloratura matched her flair for comedy and her confidence and absolute joy of singing were conveyed with precision, assurance and passion.
In his first principal role with Opera San Jose, Muir exhibited a silvery, sweet, limpid tenor well suited to the role of Ernesto. Muir sounds like he's headed in the right direction technically, even though the register shifts were occasionally apparent. He is a wonderfully musically singer as well, shaping the music with beautifully tapered phrases and a dynamic range that included some beautiful piano and mezza voce singing.
As the debonair Dottore Malatesta, Detwiler seemed to be having a great deal of fun on stage and interacted with the other characters with relish. His bright pleasant baritone encompassed both the upper lying vocal lines as well as those lower lying passages with equal easy and projection. In first scene Detwiler's voice seemed to slip out of focus or off the breath occasionally but he quickly relaxed into a consistent vocal production and a lively, animated performance.
In the title role, Jesse Merlin had the disadvantage of playing a character not close to his own age, and so had an additional challenge. This is where Condemi’s approach to the characters worked best. Rather than trying to play a realistic old man, Merlin was able to create a cartoon version of an old man, something he did very well with a comically exaggerate stiff-jointed walk and other broadly sketched physical characteristics. The focus on the physical comedy took the edge off Merlin’s vocal performance and musicianship on opening night however. Dotted rhythms were often smoothed out and grace notes ignored, make the vocal writing sound less characterful and sprightly.
Conductor Anthony Quartuccio, in his first assignment with the company as musical director for a production, gave a tightly paced reading with plenty of humor and élan. Supportive of the singers, the appeared to feel relaxed and assured under his leadership. The chorus and orchestra both contributed polished, well-prepared performances as well.
Set designer Paul Manchester’s design provided essentially a unit set with minor modifications for the production. Handsome and elegant as the principal setting in Don Pasquale’s home, the other settings provided for were either compromised (as in the series of screens added for the scene in Norina’s home) or completely eschewed (the original setting in the garden for the final scene).
Julie Engelbrecht’s costumes furthered the director’s view of the characters as types rather than individuals with playful patterns, bright contrasting colors and exaggerated silhouettes.
Under the leadership of Condemi and Quartuccio, Opera San Jose’s cast excelled and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale provided a festive, upbeat opening production for a season that will also include a double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers and Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.

Kelly Snyder



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