We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, December 5, 2016


Cast of Don Pasquale at Manhattan School of Music

Although it is reasonably well accepted in our culture that old men can marry trophy wives, especially if they have ample financial assets, society was rather cruel to such men in the 19th c. Donizetti's comic opera Don Pasquale boasts as its theme the humiliation of just such a fellow at the hands of his rebellious and disinherited nephew and his very own doctor, who play on him a very dirty trick.

The part of the eponymous hero must evoke humor but also sympathy and yesterday, at Manhattan School of Music, Thomas Muraco--conductor and coach--led an ensemble production that admirably realized the spirit of the piece.

Gaetano Donizetti composed this comic masterpiece toward the end of his life and it was his last major success.  Due to the ravages of syphilis, his health declined and he would be dead within five years from the 1843 premiere in Paris. Although the libretto is attributed to Giovanni Ruffini, it is widely believed that Donizetti's contributions were so insistent that Ruffini removed his name from the score.

What is important about this fact is the enormous humanity with which the characters are invested. They derive from the stock characters of the commedia del'arte but are far more well-rounded. Don Pasquale derives from Pantalone the foolish old man (as did Don Bartolo in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia). 

It was a triumph of acting and singing that Hidenori Inoue, who is nothing if not young and handsome, was able to convince as the titular character. He submerged himself in the performance and sang with a rich, full, and mature bass that hints at a wonderful future in this fach. His mastery of "patter" was exceptional. Alongside his foolish attempt to get even with his rebellious nephew was a generosity of spirit which readily forgave his tormentors. Still, we loved his rage aria "Aspetta, aspect, cara sposina".

Dottore Malatesta derives from the wily character Scapino in commedia del'arte, similar to Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia.  Justin Austin's interpretation was filled with the sparkle of fun. Not just shaming his patient, he was also trying to help the young lovers Ernesto and Norina. He forged a complicated plan, setting up a sham marriage with his convent-bred "sister" Sofronia who would appear to be modest and shy and then, after the marriage, reveal herself to be nasty, greedy and controlling. (Was Donizetti commenting on wives in general???)

Mr. Austin has a lovely warm instrument and fine phrasing, as well as highly developed comic instincts. He too handled the "patter" remarkably well and had a fine duet with Mr. Inoue. We especially enjoyed his "Bella siccome un angelo".

In an interesting coincidence, the role of "Sofronia" his sister was played by his wife Amanda Austin. (The two of them met studying voice at Manhattan School of Music. Sometimes truth is better, if not stranger, than fiction.)  Ms. Austin made a superlative Norina, representing the willful Columbina character of commedia del'arte--much like Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

She has a luminous presence and an impressive facility in the bel canto style with a memorable trill in her satchel of skills. Donizetti asks her to slap Don Pasquale as part of her making "Sofronia" detestable and this is the point in the opera where one feels pity for the object of everyone's deceit.

Ernesto is the lovesick nephew--analogous to the Pierrot character of commedia del'arte --and Timothy Lanigan sang with a fine lyric tenor that opened up beautifully by Act II. By the time he met up with Norina in the garden in Act III, the "Com'e gentil" could melt anyone's heart. His serenade was accompanied by a pair of guitars perfectly plucked by Diego Fernandez Arraya and Joseph Douglass.

At this point we must mention the well-rehearsed chorus whose collective diction made sure that not a syllable was lost.  One rarely hears an operatic chorus this lucid. Stefano Baldasseroni was the Italian Diction Coach and can take much of the credit, since everyone's Italian was perfect.

Yonghyun Kim added to the fun as the false notary called to record the sham marriage.

The orchestral score was reduced for two pianos by Mr. Muraco and the pianists themselves.  We heard Jiwon Byun and Jia Jun Hong. We never missed the orchestra and could even hear threads of voices that can get lost in the carpet of orchestral sound.

The overture was particularly well done with melodies anticipating what one would subsequently hear. The trumpet solo was happily preserved and well played by Imani Duhe.

As is always the case with Mr. Muraco's Opera Repertoire Ensemble, the audience is assured of a good time and the cast appears to have mastered a true ensemble feel and superb stagecraft, witness the well-balanced duets, trios and ensembles.

Had we been free, we would very much have wanted to hear the cast Friday night.  Alas, we were not free but they were probably just as excellent.

Settings were minimal and costuming was contemporary. Nothing more was needed

© meche kroop

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