By Robert Croan
Opera is an expensive enterprise, combining musical requirements (singers, orchestra) with all the trappings of drama (stage director, lighting, sets). South Florida is fortunate to be served by two big-league companies – Miami-based Florida Grand Opera, and Palm Beach Opera in West Palm Beach – as well as a smaller group that operates on a shoestring budget and serves localized community needs: Opera Fusion.
But there’s strength in numbers. This month, Opera Fusion has joined with an analogous group on Florida’s west coast, Gulfshore Opera, for a co-production of Gaetano Donizetti’s comic masterpiece, Don Pasquale, which reached the Pompano Beach Cultural Center on Saturday night. Making optimum use of limited resources, the buoyant performance made a delightful evening and an excellent vehicle to introduce new audiences to opera – part of Opera Fusion’s stated mission. The production was in the original Italian, but excellent projected translations made every moment clear and understandable.
Don Pasquale, premiered in 1843, is the last of the Italian opera buffas – a form beginning in the Baroque era based on Italian folk comedy known as commedia dell’arte. (Verdi and Puccini each wrote one great comic opera much later, but they are shining exceptions). Donizetti’s libretto used the characters and situations of the traditional commedia – the old bachelor humiliated for pursuing a much younger wife – but his plot was equally derived from Ben Jonson’s 1609 play, Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, also the source of a 20th-century opera by Richard Strauss.
The four characters in Don Pasquale have surprising truth and humanity. The heroine Norina, in love with Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto, pretends to be a shy girl just out of the convent, until, immediately on the completion of a sham marriage ceremony, she becomes a shrew. But when she slaps the old man and sees how genuinely hurt he his, she regrets and relents. Tough love, but there’s a happy ending.
This is reflected in Donizetti’s tuneful, effervescent score. Gregory Ritchey, associate conductor and chorus master of Palm Beach Opera, led an 11-piece orchestra that was somewhat taxed but worked valiantly, and an enthusiastic, well-trained eight-member chorus from Collier County’s Ave Maria University. An unexpected pleasure, in fact, was the droll choral interlude in the opera’s final act.
The Pompano Center lacks a real stage or backstage facilities, but Ardean Landhuis worked miracles in the multiple tasks of stage director/set and lighting designer. The actors moved deftly on stage as his colorful utile set turned and twisted flexibly to produce the required indoor and outdoor venues.
Don Pasquale was composed in the bel canto era, literally a time of great singing, and most of the vocalism was of high quality. The title part was taken by Tony Dillon, a veteran artist recently seen here in Florida Grand Opera’s La Bohème. He established the character as more than a stereotype, making the viewer aware of the disquietude of aging in his opening monologue, only morphing into the ludicrous in the lively “Un foco insolito” that concludes the segment. He still maintains a solid core of sound, and can produce lyric lines along with the fast patter that is the basso buffo’s stock in trade.
The most impressive singing – bel canto exemplified – came from the Norina, Laura León. A Florida Grand Opera resident artist from 2015-17, the Cuban-born soprano is now much more than that. A pert and lively figure on stage, she has a sizable, juicy sound, high notes to burn including sustained high Fs – think Queen of the Night and more – and is equally at home in legato singing and intricate coloratura. Her delivery of her opening aria, “Quel guardo il cavaliere,” would stand up to any I know, past or present.
Paul La Rosa, as Dr. Malatesta – the catalyst of the plot – revealed a smallish though agreeable baritone sound, a bit short at both ends of the range. He compensated, however, with dramatic acuity and attention to verbal detail. A special moment in Don Pasquale is “Cheti, cheti, immantenente”: a duet between Malatesta and the bass in which first Pasquale, then Malatesta sing passages of lightning-fast Italian patter. Then the two sing their lines together, an amazing feat if they can manage to do this and get the words out with any intelligibility. La Rosa and Dillon did this remarkably well.
The weak link was Zackery Morris’ inept vocalization of Pasquale’s young nephew, Ernesto. An amiable presence as the romantic hero, Morris was quite overmatched by the role’s technical demands. It’s a high part for any tenor, and this singer struggled painfully with passages that sit high in the voice not just for an occasional belted note, but for several measures. Curiously, Ernesto’s most demanding moment, a cabaletta (fast aria following a slow one) that is conventionally omitted in performance because of its difficulty, was reinstated here. It would have been kinder for performer and audience alike to have observed the traditional cut.
One credit that did not appear in the printed program, whether for modesty or inadvertent omission, was Opera Fusion’s hardworking founder and executive director Birgit Fioravante, who was present, and made a brief and gracious introduction to this very rewarding event.