Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Fabulous singing and full of laughs, Don Pasquale entertains in 50s Hollywood style at Fort Worth Opera

Burak Bilgili as Don Pasquale and Ji-Min Park as Ernesto
The comic madness that accompanies Donizetti’s effervescent score in his 1843 premiered Don Pasquale comes with a jolly good 1950s Hollywood update from director Chuck Hudson in a production from Arizona Opera that was first seen in 2014. It opened on Saturday night courtesy of Fort Worth Opera and, apart from the occasional over-the-top slapstick hijacking, it entertained marvellously. 

Hudson’s concept imaginatively incorporates the black and white celluloid world of the silent film era to identify Don Pasquale as “The Sovereign of the Silver Screen”. When the vibrant overture began, Hudson gave his audience black and white movie magic with Don Pasquale starring in the title role of his most celebrated film, “The Sheik of Arabia”, a hoot of a start using old footage and fake superimposed characters. More of those celluloid divertissements popped up later and kept up the fun act. 

But when the curtain goes up, Don Pasquale’s star has long faded and he’s living in his long-gone Oscar-winning glory surrounded by shelves of old movie reels in a home with a view to the Hollywood sign as part of Peter Nolle’s smart-looking designs, Kathleen Trott’s period-appropriate costumes and Eric Watkins’s crisp lighting. Interestingly, as the plot unfolds, Pasquale's world around him transitions from black and white to technicolor and with it the out-of-step geriatric appears sadly left behind.

Audrey Luna as Norina
If not for being acted out in such well-honed comic form and sung so thrillingly, Donizetti’s topsy-turvy work - with the moral that “The man who marries old is weak in the head” - would collapse. But, treated to the talents of four fine principals who connected with and complimented each other superbly, the story gets a generous dose of comic preposterousness, extreme as it sometimes becomes. 

The work’s melodious array of arias, duets, trios and quartets were showcased excellently, brimming with vitality and astute vocal balance. The precision between stage and pit lapsed occasionally in the prestissimo runs but conductor Joe Illick otherwise brought out the lovely lyrical aspects while guiding the well-supported sound of Fort Worth Symphony.

Richly fortified Turkish bass-baritone Burak Bilgili instantly set the antics alight as the spright and elderly, pallid and bespectacled Don Pasquale. Bilgili sang the Italian lines with zinging articulation and characterful expression, projected with a big throaty resonance and adeptly portrayed an old man deciding to take a young bride with self-entitled celebrity flair. But, despite his creepy and lecherous ways, there's an ounce of sympathy Bilgili makes you have for him.

Audrey Luna, Andrew Wilkowske and Burak Bilgili 
As Don Pasquale’s theatrically confident double-crossing friend and doctor, one who appears to have suppressed dreams of Hollywood stardom but nonetheless basks in his own suave good looks, buff and burnished baritone Andrew Wilkowske was an exuberant Malatesta. Wilkowske’s timing with the quick alternations between feigning assistance with Pasquale’s plans to marry and twists of deceit were always delivered with sharpness and polished finish. Together with Bilgili, the duo hammed it up big time, including punching out the ripper pitter-patter rhythms of Act 2’s “Cheti, cheti, immantinente” and a rollickingly mimed scene in Act 3, outside the Hollywood Bowl for some incongruous reason, as Malatesta unsuccessfully tries to get Pasquale’s elastic-attached keys. 

On this note, the downside was that poor Ernesto’s mostly offstage aria, “Com'è gentil”, was laughed all over but Korean tenor Ji-Min Park had already won his audience over with his youthful innocence and thrilling adrenaline-rich tenor. Doing so in the unequivocal opening night highlight with Act 2’s lament, “Cercherò lontana terra”, Park both movingly and humorously portrayed Ernesto’s despair in believing he was no use to his sweetheart Norina and powerfully embodied a yin and yang like inseparability of tragi-comedy as he made one failed suicide attempt after the other - a scene that came with the kind of subtlety and depth that parts of the performance missed.

Ji-Min Park and Audrey Luna with Fort Worth Opera Chorus
For the lone female soloist playing Norina, Donizetti ascribed tantalisingly elegant and filigreed music which much pleasure was had in hearing plush and creamy Italian soprano Audrey Luna give sparkle and pliancy to. Making a first appearance ‘on set’ in a bubble bath, Luna plays a stylish Hollywood starlet who Pasquale forbids his nephew Ernesto to marry - if so, Ernesto will lose his inheritance. Luna captivated with her gleam and purity of tone but then came the icing on the cake with her trills and ornamentations that danced athletically in step with her lithe foxiness and vivacious nature. When lured into Malatesta’s plot as his direct-from-the-convent virginal sister Sofronia, in order to trick Pasquale into falling for her and marrying him in a fake ceremony, Luna turned on every comic muscle effortlessly.

But the party of pop cultural icons made no convincing reason for taking the place of Sofronia’s (Norina’s) newly hired servants in the original. And as brilliantly shaded and secure as the chorus work was, the likes of Groucho Marx, Carmen Miranda, James Dean and Elvis Presley, amongst others, made lukewarm representations.

Still, Donizetti’s ‘opera buffa’ comes up trumps. Simply delighting in its fabulous singing is enough to recommend it but you get to laugh when you might least expect to and that surprise alone is priceless. 

Don Pasquale
Fort Worth Opera
Bass Performance Hall 
Until 6th May, 2018

Production Photos: Ben Torres

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