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Naughty but Nice

Kennedy Center Opera House
05/13/2011 -  & May 16, 18, 21, 22m, 24, 26, 27, 2011
Gaetano Donizetti: Don Pasquale
James Morris (Don Pasquale), Dwayne Croft (Dr. Malatesta), Antonio Gandia (Ernesto), Ekaterina Siurina (Norina), Jeffrey Tarr (A Notary)
Washington National Opera Chorus, Steve Gathman (Chorus Master)Washington National Opera Orchestra, Plácido Domingo (Conductor)
Mark McCullough (Lighting Designer), Allen Moyer (Set/Costume Designer), Leon Major (Stage Director)

E. Siurina, J. Morris (© WNO)

The Washington National Opera concludes its 2010/2011 season with an absolutely delightful presentation of Gaetano Donizetti’s hilarious and ever-popular comic opera Don Pasquale. This superb and colorful production is distinguished by a stellar cast, excellent conducting, and stylish and witty stage direction. It is entertaining from beginning to end, and maintains a high vocal standard of real bel canto.

Who could ever have thought that James Morris, the towering Wotan, the imposing Flying Dutchman, and the wonderfully evil Baron Scarpia, would have a Don Pasquale in him. Well, he does, and he is absolutely hilarious in the role, singing it far and away better than one will ever hear from your usual basso buffo. Morris calls to mind immediately the fact that Donizetti composed this role for the legendary 19th century bass Luigi Lablache, who was celebrated in original compositions by the likes of not only Donizetti, but by Rossini, Beethoven, and Wagner. Mr. Morris’s performance, as enhanced by the outrageous costumes of Allen Moyer, which included ridiculous hats and wigs, and the comically savvy direction of Leon Major, is absolutely on a par with his Wotan or Scarpia. You do not want to miss him in this production. He is unforgettable as Don Pasquale.

Don Pasquale premiered in Paris at the Comédie-Italienne on January 3, 1843. Donizetti was at the height of his powers, and was the most popular and celebrated composer in Europe. The premiere featured a quartet of the greatest singers of the day. Surrounding Luigi Lablache was Guilia Grisi as Norina, Antonio Tamburini as Dr. Malatesta, and Giovanni Mario as Ernesto. It was an immediate success and has remained in the repertory of every major opera house to this day. Don Pasquale is considered Donizetti’s comic masterpiece and perhaps the finest Italian opera buffa ever composed, surpassing Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, which it mirrors in many aspects. What distinguishes Donizetti’s comic characters is their three dimensional construction. They are not one dimensional cardboard cutouts. They are fully rounded and emotionally developed characters, which tug at our heart strings as well as make us laugh. Donizetti allows us to see their longings and sorrows in the midst of their comic situations. The characters in Don Pasquale are, however, based on the stock characters of the commedia dell’arte. Pasquale is recognizable as the blustery Pantalone, Ernesto as the lovesick Pierrot, Malatesta as the scheming Scapino, and Norina as a wily Colombina. The false Notary echoes a long line of false officials as operatic devices.

The charming and vocally dazzling Russian coloratura soprano Ekaterina Siurina, who sings the role of Norina, and the fabulous Spanish tenorino leggiero Antonio Gandia, who partners her as her lover Ernesto, recall the heyday of Amelita Galli-Curci and Tito Schipa.
Their voices sail through the demanding bravura music written for Grisi and Mario. Their last act duettino “Tornami a dir che m’ami” (Tell me again that you love me), soars like two actual lovebirds, their voices effortlessly dovetailing and intertwining. It was truly memorable singing and real “bel canto”.

Ms. Siurina is a lovely and pert comic actress who plays her part to the hilt. She drives poor Don Pasquale mad with her frivolous spending of his money and her complete disregard for his feelings. She struts about the stage gesturing and making hilarious faces as she orders the servants to do her bidding. She rudely gives the poor old man a sound slap in the face when she tires of his ranting. Even in the finale she sings that the moral of this story is: “An old man who chases after young girls needs to have his head examined!” Ms. Siurina is obviously having a great time with all of this. She is the perfect counterpoint to the equally animated acting of James Morris. Her famous aria “Quel guardo il cavalliere” (The knight’s heart was pierced by her glance) was delivered with style and panache, but her crystalline voice made it even more precious. I was enthralled. She was equally compelling in the duet with Dr. Malatesta, superbly sung by Dwayne Croft, as she sailed through the many brilliant scale passages and melismas. One has to remember that although this is a comic role, it was written for one of the finest coloraturas in vocal history, so the music is absolutely virtuoso, and Ekaterina Siurina was on top of all the many demands.

Tenor Antonio Gandia was the perfect match for Ms. Siurina. True tenori leggieri are difficult to come by. The role of Ernesto is often sung by a lyric tenor. Mr. Gandia has a voice that is exactly what the music calls for. He has alarmingly brilliant and secure top notes, and he sings a perfectly smooth legato with many shades and colors. His first cavatina “Sogno soave e casto” (Sweet and chaste dream” was meltingly lyric. The big aria and cabaletta that open Act II, “Povero Ernesto” (Poor Ernesto) displayed his many talents to the fullest and gave him ample moments to exhibit his ringing and thrilling high notes. He pulled a Bb out of the air at the end of the recitative as if it were nothing. He could be some serious competition for Juan Diego Florez. The trumpeter who played the opening solo to this aria was terrific. He made his trumpet sing the music and sing it with great expression

What could round out this already stellar cast more than to have Dwayne Croft as Dr. Malatesta? He had a lot to compete with in this production and he more than held his own onstage. His voice was velvety sweet and mellifluous in the aria “Bella siccome un angelo” (As lovely as an angel) where he begins his plot to deceive Don Pasquale into a phony marriage to his sister Norina. Norina is in disguise as the docile and innocent Safronia, who is recently come from a convent school. The role of Malatesta resembles Rossini’s Figaro (The Barber of Seville) in very many ways. He is constantly scheming and deceiving the old man to arrange in the end a marriage for the two young lovers. The biggest highlight of the evening was perhaps his Act III duet with James Morris, which has such a rapid patter that it could not possibly have escaped the attention, years later, of Sir Arthur Sullivan. Croft and Morris raced through this amazing and rapid patter at a breakneck speed that brought down the house. In fact there was so much cheering at the end of the duet, that there was no alternative other than to encore the number. It was completely dazzling and entertaining.

In the pit, or should I say at the helm of all these shenanigans and brilliant singing, was indisputable star of the evening Plácido Domingo. Maestro Domingo has a wonderful feeling and understanding of Donizetti’s music, and he has an obvious love of bel canto and its particular style. We heard him several seasons past at WNO conducting Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, which was equally impressive. He propelled the comedy and romance all evening, and accompanied the singers with a support that fitted each voice like a fine glove. From the first downbeat of the overture, which was brilliantly conducted, we knew we were in for something special. The overture to this opera is one of the great overtures in the Italian literature. It was in the repertoire of many great conductors, from Arturo Toscanini to Bruno Walter. Domingo gave a wonderful performance of this, highlighting the many inner voices, and bringing out the tunes with lilting tempi and exquisite use of rubato. The orchestra responded like true champions and played his often brisk tempi with tight execution.

It really is amazing that one of the greatest tenors of all time is also an superb conductor. But it should not come as a surprise for someone of his musicality and experience. Nonetheless it is somewhat of a miracle. Just having the baton in this man’s hands raised the level of already great singing to yet another height altogether.

What a wonderful way for Plácido Domingo to conclude his tenure as General Director of the Washington National Opera. This absolutely superb production of Don Pasquale brings together all of the many elements of opera with an exceptional level of artistry. WNO obviously went “all out” on this production. It is a resounding success, and guaranteed to delight and entertain the most jaded and knowledgeable opera devotee. You do not want to miss this one!

I cannot end this review without making a special mention of the colorful costumes and ingenious sets of Allen Moyer, the sensitive and enchanting lighting design of Mark McCullough, which even included antique theater footlights, and the absolutely brilliant stage direction of Leon Major. The work of these men superbly complimented and enhanced each other’s vision. They were the roses, candles, and icing on an already rich and multi-tiered cake.

Micaele Sparacino



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