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Opera Review

'Don Pasquale' Again Bids Farewell to All That Silliness

April 13, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" is often called the last lasting opera buffa, that genre of operatic foolishness as convention-minded, and often as downright mindless, as later-day television sitcoms. Yet "Don Pasquale," written in 1843 and Donizetti's 64th opera in 27 years, is also something else, a tender swan song for a world that didn't always feel compelled to take itself seriously.

You know that right away. Five seconds into the overture and the typically boisterous opening chords are startlingly cut off, as if they are but fanfare for the lyric, insinuating solo cello serenade that takes over. A lot of silliness will follow on stage, but from the start Donizetti announces his intention to move us with sweet, sure, compassionate melody. For the New Grove Dictionary of Opera this is praised as an almost Mozartean quality. That may be overstated, but it serves as a warning to any opera company staging the comedy. The characters, as in Mozart, must not appear merely ridiculous.

In reviving its production of "Don Pasquale" on Wednesday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Opera goes about halfway in following that dictum. In a worn production that long ago lost its center, Don Pasquale, a foolhardy old man who thinks he can marry a sweet young thing, is, indeed, played the clown. But Norina, his bride, and Dr. Malatesta, his friend who arranges the whole thing, are not. It is for them, as portrayed by Ruth Ann Swenson and Thomas Allen, that this production is worth attending.

Norina's marriage to Pasquale is a trick; she poses as an innocent and then, upon signing the license, turns outrageous shrew. She loves Pasquale's nephew, Ernesto, but the old man opposes that marriage and decides he needs a wife in order to sire new heirs.

It is simple enough to make a mockery of Pasquale, and Swenson is funny playing coy and funny being outrageously bossy.

But in her lavish first act aria, Swenson, boasting of her knowing how to manipulate men, is as wistful as she is flirtatious. Singing coloratura passages with seeming effortlessness, she appears to both be enjoying the moment and seeing deeply into the ways of the world. There is not, as the performance progresses, a moment when the soprano is on stage that she doesn't show, in a small facial gesture or a elegantly turned vocal one, something meaningful.

Allen is equally adept at measuring dramatic nuances between droll and preposterous. His baritone may no longer have the easy grace of his stage presence--he took some time to warm up and he was not strongly heard in ensembles--but he combines acting and singing into an irresistible, unified character. Understanding the foibles of Pasquale, Allen exudes an ultimate warmth that makes forgiveness at the end of this opera seem possible.

Nearly undercutting all of this, however, is Simone Alaimo's stereotypically slapstick Pasquale, a lummox gruffly sung.

Before the curtain rose, it was announced that Greg Fedderly was suffering from sinus problems but agreed to sing. Ernesto is the ardent tenor role that fulfills the same function in the opera as Zeppo does in the Marx Brothers' films; if Fedderly seemed slightly constrained, he did not sound unduly compromised, and he will surely become freer as the run continues.

Emmanuel Joel conducted; Stephen Lawless directed. One, the conductor, allowed too little freedom; the other, Lawless, too much. Joel was fleet but skimmed over the score in such as a way that the opera felt not so much to fly as to jerk forward. The ensembles need more work.

Lawless moved traffic efficiently, but the production (originally created by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle for Covent Garden in the '80s) offered little overriding dramatic focus. Ponnelle's sets and costumes are full of interesting period detail, but the set is small for the Pavilion stage, which makes it look like a miniature.

Still, Swenson and Thomas are performers with enough scope and enough center to their individual roles to overcome such physical or musical barriers.

* "Don Pasquale" repeats Saturday at 1 p.m., April 18 at 7:30 p.m., April 21 at 1 p.m., and April 24, 27 and 29 at 7:30 p.m. $28-$148. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. (213) 365-3500.

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