Pittsburgh Opera gives classic ‘Don Pasquale’ a fresh take
Classic Italian romantic comedy will be enlivened with more recent comic techniques and a fresh updating of its story in the final production of Pittsburgh Opera’s 2018-19 season
Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” April 27 to May 5 at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center.
Donizetti wrote the opera for the Italian Theatre in Paris, where it was first performed in 1843.
“I look at the story as straight out of commedia dell’arte,” says stage director Chuck Hudson. “There’s the miserly old man (Don Pasquale), a characteristically wily and talkative doctor (Dr. Malatesta), a young melodramatic lover (Ernesto) and a sweet young thing who masks herself as a cold woman (Norina). These stock characters are alive even today.”
Finding the inspiration
Hudson found the inspiration for his updating when strolling through San Simeon, the opulent mansion of William Randolph Hearst in California.
“There are pictures on the walls of film stars having a great time at his parties, often in costume,” he says. As the director wondered how he could justify using movie stars in the show, “suddenly ‘Sunset Boulevard’ imagery just came to me — an old star who is trying to maintain illusions in a changing world.”
Singers say the production features a very specific kind of physical comedy.
“I worked for years with Marcel Marceau. I studied with him, was his teaching assistant, his protégé,” says Hudson. “I spent a lot of time with him, particularly on his comedy and style. Slapstick is the beer of comedy, but you know it’s not pretty when you mix beer and champagne. I wanted to make sure I found the same quality in the physical portrayal of the comedy that we find in Donizetti’s music – the level of specificity and virtuosity. Marceau’s work does come to my mind because he studied Charlie Chaplin. His style is so clear there’s a universality to his language, and Marceau’s world doesn’t need to explain things either.”
Bass Kevin Glavin, fresh off his triumph in two roles in the opera’s recent “La Boheme,” will star in the title role of Donizetti’s opera.
“Hudson has given very specific direction on our moves,” says Glavin. “We have marks to hit all the time, but he does leave us room to use our artistry within his framework. It’s a lot of memorization to these moves.”
The basso buffo says his comic timing is intuitive, but adds that “It’s not difficult to play this character because the music gives you the character.”
Soprano Lisette Oropesa will sing the object of Don Pasquale’s desire, Norina. She scored a brilliant success as Marie in Pittsburgh Opera’s 2015 production of Donizetti’s “La fille du regiment” (The Daughter of the Regiment), and recently won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award.
Oropesa says Norina is “a bit unsympathetic because the plot the lovers hatch goes a bit too far when Norina ends up slapping Don Pasquale across the face. You think, what a jerk. She’s hardly sympathetic in that moment, but not every hero is perfect.”
Oropesa is a runner and knows how to pace herself, a skill needed to sing Norina.
“She’s an energy dominant, very vivacious and charismatic character,” says Oropesa. “She takes over every scene, which means she sings a lot. She has to sing everything from very high notes to very low notes, fast notes and long phrases. And at the very end is the hardest aria of the night. It’s the ‘big moral of the story’ aria and a fast coloratura showcase.”
Conductor Gary Wedow knows Hudson’s staging very well, having conducted its first performances in 2014 with Arizona Opera, and admires its music driven approach.
“One of the things I love about this opera is that Donizetti has his roots in the classical era,” says Wedow. “He has a marvelous sense of architecture and yet there are these romantic harmonies and beautiful ‘bel canto’ melodies and cadenzas.”
The conductor feels his role is to represent the composer.
“The best way I can support the singers is to give them the most beautiful orchestra underneath,” he says. “There’s no opera I love more than ‘Don Pasquale.’”
Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.