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PERFORMING ARTS

They Work Hard to Keep It Light

'Don Pasquale' may be comedy, but it's as demanding as tragic opera, argue two singers who should know.

April 08, 2001|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Sunday Calendar

In opera, as in all of the dramatic arts, being funny is serious business. Although the star-crossed fates and tragic diva deaths of opera seria may loom larger in the public consciousness, comedic opera forms an important part of the standard repertory. What's more, for all its froth, the comic opera, or opera buffa, is no less demanding than its dour and dire sibling.

Some consider Gaetano Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" among the best of the buffas. A revival of the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of the 1843 work, directed by Stephen Lawless, opens Wednesday at Los Angeles Opera. It is the tale of the Don, a wealthy, aging and increasingly foolish bachelor who attempts to derail his nephew's infatuation with the lively widow Norina by marrying her himself. Only when the wily physician Dr. Malatesta intervenes to help the young lovers is Pasquale taught a lesson.

American soprano Ruth Ann Swenson (Norina) and English baritone Thomas Allen (Dr. Malatesta), last seen together here in the 1999-2000 revival of Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love," in which Swenson made her company debut, join forces again in "Don Pasquale." Swenson sings regularly with the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and many others. She is associated with both dramatic and lyric roles, including the title character in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," Gilda in "Rigoletto" and Anne Trulove in "The Rake's Progress."

Allen, who has made the Royal Opera House Covent Garden his home company for three decades now, is widely regarded as one of the preeminent singing actors of his generation. Particularly associated with the title roles in "Billy Budd," 'Eugene Onegin" and especially "Don Giovanni," he made his Los Angeles Opera debut in 199O singing Count Almaviva in "The Marriage of Figaro" and has returned here more than half a dozen times.

The singers spoke with The Times on a recent weekend morning, in Los Angeles Opera artistic director Placido Domingo's office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

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Question: "Don Pasquale" is a fun, lighthearted piece. But is it an easy one?

Swenson: Some people think it's a comedy, we'll just toss it off. Wrong. It takes technique.

You have to remember, it was written for some of the greatest singers that ever were. We're talking 1843-the height of bel canto technique. I think you need five really primo players-not only singers but actors.

Allen: The operatic world, the musical world, has different kinds of requirements and needs. This is an ethereal thing. It must be fun, therefore it's easy, blah, blah, blah. It's not.

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Q: What place does this hold in your repertory?

Allen: It's a rarity. I sang it at Covent Garden. I've sung it in Munich and I've recorded it, and that's it. There are some [bass baritones] who have made their mark with it, whereas my range is from early music all the way up to yesterday or tomorrow.

Swenson: I'm considered a lyric coloratura, which is what this role requires. You need to have flexibility. You just can't have a tiny little voice, because it demands more. I covered this role when I was a young artist in San Francisco. I did it in Geneva, Portland, Chicago and Dallas.

But, as we do have broad repertoires, this doesn't fall in the category of one that you do as often as, say, "Lucia."

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Q: What impact does having a broad repertory have on your technique and artistry?

Allen: A concert career of singing songs and oratorios aids tremendously a career on the opera stage and vice versa. You learn control and discipline in certain stillnesses, so that as you become more developed, you realize the usefulness of them and the strength they have on a stage.

In a similar way, playing tragedy or comedy, you learn from comedy to play tragedy and from tragedy to play comedy. The lines are very, very close.

You find elements; you take a taste from this or that. I think the whole thing is a combination of many ideas.

Swenson: When I come to a role like this, I always think that I'm not going to change my technique just because of the repertoire. I keep my technique the same if I'm singing "Figaro" or I'm singing "Lucia."

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Q: What are the particular challenges, and the particular pleasures, of "Don Pasquale'?

Swenson: It's a freshness that you have to bring to it-because it's a comedy and it's charming. Norina's not particularly [an] ingenue, but I think the lightness she has in this piece is certainly something I've done before. I've always loved to play the lighter, comedic roles.

It's fun. Like last year it was fun to work with Tom and not have to die or stab myself or be in a sack at the end. That's always a relief, when I can live at the end.

Allen: This opera is very lean. It's not full of frivolities and embroidery. It's exactly what you need. It's cut down to the actual bare essentials. It somehow represents Pasquale in his day. He's reduced down in the very same way.

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