|Zachary Nelson, Alek Shrader, Brenda Rae and Andrew Shore (photo by Ken Howard)
One doesn't need to be a music scholar to enjoy Donizetti's music. All one needs to win over the audience is a group of stellar bel canto singers who can animate his abundant melodies and provide the embellishments we so dearly adore. Such was the case last night at the Santa Fe Opera when a quartet of masters of the genre provided two and a half hours of unending vocal delights in a production of Don Pasquale. Arias, duets and ensembles tumbled over each other like rushing waters over stones creating bubbles and effervescence to tickle the ears of the audience.
Consider British baritone Andrew Shore who inhabited the role of the eponymous hero, an "aging" man approaching seventy who methinks wants an heir and just maybe a playmate. He falls victim to the machinations of the wily Dr. Malatesta who proposes his "sister" Sophronia, fresh out of a convent, shy and modest, dedicated to sewing, cooking and embroidery.
What we in the audience know, and Don Pasquale does not, is that Sophronia is really Norina, the young widow loved by his nephew Ernesto. The Don is peeved with Ernesto who has refused to marry the wealthy widow chosen by himself. By way of retaliation, Don Pasquale means to disinherit his slacker nephew and find his own wife. What is interesting about the character created by Mr. Shore is that he evokes our compassion. He is not a doddering old fool but just more than a bit gullible. His generous voice is never used solely for effect and he easily rises above the over-the-top stage business he is required to perform. This is an artist at work, or rather, at play.
As the conniving Dr. Malatesta, baritone Zachary Nelson, a former member of the Apprentice Program who rose to stardom within the year, justified our early faith in his talent. His fine voice was employed with great style and his acting skills were no less than Mr. Shore's.
Brenda Rae, so admired last year as Violetta, showed a completely different side of herself as the strong and manipulative Norina who will get what she wants by any means, fair or foul. Her dazzling soprano was taken to dizzying heights with florid displays of bel canto technique, always used to build character. She has trills that thrill and executed the plethora of runs with pinpoint accuracy.
Tenor Alek Shrader, whom we so heartily enjoyed four years ago as Albert Herring, possesses not only a gorgeous instrument but a real flair for comedy. In Act II, his solo aria made a huge impression even as it began offstage. He has lovely phrasing and no fear of high notes which he performs effortlessly, Those of us who witnessed his winning Tonio at the Metropolitan Opera National Council were not surprised. This astounding young man was made for Donizetti.
Corrado Rovaris led the orchestra through Donizetti's sprightly music. From the opening theme played on the cello we knew we were in good hands. Melodies were beautifully articulated.
With such fine musical values and four superb voices such as these, we could have closed our eyes and happily shut out the unattractive sets by Chantal Thomas and the equally boring costumes of Laurent Pelly who also directed the production. Having seen several of Mr. Pelly's productions, we can not consider ourself a fan. Onto this delightful period piece, so largely attuned to Italian dramatic history and commedia dell'arte, he has imposed a concept that clashed with the story and did nothing to illuminate the characters.
He has set the production in some vaguely modernist period and indeterminate land in which there would be nothing unusual about a man in his 60's seeking a trophy wife and in which we do not speak of horses, carriages and stables. He has directed the show with a superfluity of shtick, or should we say slapshtick. Don Pasquale wields his cane as a violin bow. Why? Norina is shown smoking, drinking, and vomiting in contempt over the romantic novel she is reading and from which she is supposed to be deriving inspiration. Ernesto is depicted as a toddler with "the terrible twos", having a tantrum on the floor. In a lengthy scene of his departure from his uncle's house he is shown struggling with suitcases that open and spill out his clothes, a scene suggestive of Abbott and Costello. When Malatesta visits Norina to set up the nasty plot, he pockets her underclothes and a shoe. Again, why? To what end?
The four principals gamely followed through on the direction and it was only their fine voices that allowed them to rise above the ridiculous direction. But that ridiculous direction distracted from the music and made us dislike the characters and to not care what happens to them. We want to love Ernesto and Norina! We want them to triumph over adversity, even if Uncle gets a painful lesson. Instead, we found our sympathies tilted toward Uncle.
The set appeared suitable for farce with wildly uneven doors through which characters entered and departed as if in the game of Whack-a-Mole. That is, when they were not walking through walls that weren't there. In Act II, the set was turned upside down to symbolize....well, you can guess the obvious can't you?
Strangely, the audience laughed constantly and seemed to be having a grand old time--even when poor Mr. Shrader was obliged to climb a precarious ladder to hang a paper moon over the garden which, in Mr. Pelly's world, doesn't even have a plant.
So, we give the singers and musicians all A's and Mr. Pelly's production a big fat F for failure.
Let us add that the chorus of Apprentice Singers performed admirably and Calvin Griffin made a fine Notary.
To all those who admire Brenda Rae as much as we do, she is giving a recital this afternoon at 4:00 for Performance Santa Fe at St. John's United Methodist Church. We will be there with review to follow.
(c) meche kroop