Review: ‘Don Pasquale’ at San Francisco Opera (****1/2)

by Charles Kruger

Caricature of Lucas Meachem (as Dr. Malatesta, Heidi Stober as Norina, Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto, and Maurizio Muraro (on the floor)) as Don Pasquale. Credit: Argyle C. Klopnick.
Caricature of Lucas Meachem as Dr. Malatesta, Heidi Stober as Norina, Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto, and Maurizio Muraro (on the floor)) as the hapless Don Pasquale. Credit: Argyle C. Klopnick.

Donezetti’s “Don Pasquale” is often spoken with along with Rossini’s uncannily popular “The Barber of Seville” as one of the greatest exemplars of Italian comic opera.

To summarize the plot: Don Pasquale is upset that his nephew rejects the Don’s choice of a bride, preferring to marry for love. The determined, though elderly, Don decides to disinherit his nephew by finding a bride of his own. The nephew’s friend, Dr. Malatesta, obliges the Don by offering to introduce him to a potential bride. Although the doctor claims that that the young girl is his sister, she is actually the nephew’s lady love. The plan is to fake a marriage with the help of a phony notary, and then have the lady drive the Don crazy with shrewish and spendthrift behavior, teaching the old man a lesson.

For my money, it is not in a league, musically or dramatically, with Rossini’s masterpiece, but parts of it are stupendous and, in the hands of an excellent company, it is achingly funny. The company at SF Opera, along with witty staging and a wonderfully whimsical set, is quite excellent. And most excellent among the excellent is the great Maurizio Muraro as the titular Don. His physical comedy, aside from his polished singing, could easily win a Tony nomination on the Broadway stage. He gives us comic acting at its best, cavorting with greedy glee.

As the young lovers, Lawrence Brownlee and Heidi Stober are also delightful. Ms. Stober’s lyric soprano is a joy to listen to, and her acting is better than fine.

Besides Mr. Muraro’s masterful comedy, the most striking element in this production is undoubtedly tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s beautifully sung Ernesto in an SF Opera debut that will surely be remembered and celebrated for years to come. Brownlee, who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, singing Gospel music at Church, is widely admired for his mastery of the bel canto repertoire. His celebrated Metropolitan debut was as Count Almaviva in “The Barber of Seville.” His honey toned voice and ethereally, gently precise, high notes brought gasps of surprised delight at the performance I attended, and many shouts of “Bravo.”

As Dr. Malatesta, Lucas Meachem is a riot, especially in his show stopping rendition, along with Muraro as Don Pasquale, of the famous patter duet in Act 3. This duet, especially as performed here, is about as much fun as it is possible to have in the opera house, outside of a private box.

Rounding out the cast is the very capable bass baritone Bojan Knežević, as the phony notary.

In addition to the singers, it is absolutely incumbent upon this reviewer to mention Chantal Thomas’s delightfully simple and cockeyed set, which depicts the household literally turned upside down by the antics of the mischievous Norina. An arm chair is used with such comic aplomb that it practically deserves credit as a character in its own right.

The orchestra, under the baton of Giuseppe Finzi, is suitably sparkling.

If “Don Pasquale” does not climb the heights of bel canto performance, it wallows with delicious humor in the lows, promising plenty of guffaws and enough musical highlights to make it a memorable night at the opera.

“Don Pasquale”continues for three more performances at The War Memorial Opera House: 10/07, 10/12, and 10/15. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ****1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.

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“Don Pasquale” by Gaetano Donizetti with a libretto by Giovani Ruffini and Gaetano Donizetti. A co-production of SF Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona. Director: Laurent Pelly. Conductor: Giuseppe Finzi. Set Designer: Chantal Thomas. Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. 

Cast:

Don Pasquale: Maurizio Muraro. Norina: Heidi Stober. Ernesto: Lawrence Brownlee. Dr. Maltesta: Lucas Meachem. A notary: Bojan Knežević.

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