22 March 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — DON PASQUALE (B. Smoak, M. Redding, C. Carrico, K. Alston, J. Ray; Piedmont Opera, 19 March 2023)

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone BRAD SMOAK in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Don PasqualeBrad Smoak (Don Pasquale), Michael Redding (Dottore Malatesta), Cree Carrico (Norina), Kameron Alston (Ernesto), Jackson Ray (Carlino); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra, John McKeever, conductor [James Allbritten, Stage Director; John Pascoe, Scenic Designer; Norman Coates, Lighting Designer; Ann M. Bruskiewitz, Costume Designer; Destinee Steele, Wig and Makeup Designer; Elizabeth Fowle, Choreographer Piedmont Opera, Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 19 March 2023]

The composer’s surviving correspondence intimates that the final decade of Gaetano Donizetti’s life were troubled by artistic frustration, progressing illness, and mental decline. Censorial impediments to staging new works in the forms in which they were conceived and other bureaucratic interference having soured his long-standing partnership with Naples’s Teatro di San Carlo, the house that witnessed the first performances of Lucia di Lammermoor, Roberto Devereux, and a number of his less-remembered operas, Donizetti turned his attention to Paris. Following the examples of both Rossini and Bellini, who created new works for the French capital, Donizetti sought to replicate the successful Paris première of his opera Parisina d’Este at the Théâtre-Italien by devising a wholly-new piece for the company. Working with librettist Giovanni Ruffini, he adapted Angelo Anelli’s text for Stefano Pavesi’s 1810 opera Ser Marcantonio into a delectable comedic confection that abounds with the finest ingredients of his artistry.

Contemporary accounts of the world première of Don Pasquale at the Théâtre-Italien on 3 January 1843, document the Parisian public’s immediate recognition of the extraordinary quality of Donizetti’s score. The opera’s farcical story of a pompous man of a certain age disinheriting his lovelorn nephew in order to take a young wife for himself stoked the composer’s imagination, yielding music that, despite its Rossinian elements, simmers with originality. Previous Piedmont Opera productions of L’elisir d’amore and Maria Stuarda masterfully realized the theatrical potency of both comic and serious Donizetti, meticulous handling of the scores’ musical demands engendering performances in which the aspects of his craft that differentiated Donizetti from Rossini, Bellini, the young Verdi, and other contemporaries were uncommonly discernible. Sharing its predecessors’ emphasis on maintaining high musical standards, the company’s Don Pasquale recaptured the wit and bel canto grace that captivated Parisians 180 years ago, making both the opera’s long-loved comedy and Donizetti’s oft-performed score seem wholly new.

Trading the podium for the director’s chair for this production, Piedmont Opera Artistic Director James Allbritten achieved in his staging of Don Pasquale the irreproachable musicality that distinguishes his work in the orchestra pit. Allied with Elizabeth Fowle’s suave choreography, delightfully executed by the singers, Allbritten’s direction avoided the pitfalls of comic opera, eschewing manic slapstick and physical comedy that distracts singers and audiences from the music in favor of stage action that was genuinely funny but also conducive to proper singing.

Recalling the recreations of Edwardian England in Merchant-Ivory films, Ann M. Bruskiewitz’s costume designs and Destinee Steele’s wigs and makeup complemented the aesthetics of Allbritten’s concept, enhancing the visual comedy without hindering movement or vocal production. With bel canto credentials encompassing many noteworthy productions, among the most significant of which is the 1989 Detroit Norma in which Dame Joan Sutherland sang her final performances of Bellini’s titular druidess, scenic designer John Pascoe devised a physical setting for Don Pasquale that manifested the eponymous curmudgeon’s past-his-prime pomposity. Artfully illuminated by lighting designer Norman Coates, Piedmont Opera’s staging provided vibrant tableaux in which the kaleidoscopic colors of Donizetti’s music danced alongside the cast.

IN REVIEW: tenor JACKSON RAY as Carlino in Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Un notaio in famiglia: tenor Jackson Ray as Carlino in Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Returning to the company he ably served as Assistant Conductor for several seasons, John McKeever led this performance of Don Pasquale idiomatically, shaping scenes with confident handling of tempi and dynamics. Ensembles crackled with propulsive energy under McKeever’s baton, the comedy moving at a rapid pace without leaving any of the principals gasping for breath, and the score’s lyrical passages were allowed ample time in which to cast their spells. The Winston-Salem Symphony musicians responded to the conductor’s effervescent leadership with a rollicking performance of the opera’s spirited Sinfonia and fine playing throughout the afternoon.

Ken Wilmot’s splendid realization of the hauntingly beautiful trumpet obbligato in Ernesto’s scene in Act Two was undermined by only a very brief intonational falter, and the unerring rhythmic precision of percussionist Isaac Pyatt’s work excitingly reinforced the momentum of McKeever’s pacing. Piedmont Opera’s choristers sang rousingly, their performance of the servants’ chorus—an episode that is sometimes more to be endured than enjoyed—exhilarating and amusing. Only the opera’s final scene, shortened by cutting the repeat of Norina’s rondò and the characters’ reactions to the end of their game in the finale’s stretta, lacked continuity, the resolution of the comical entanglements feeling forced rather than organic. Nevertheless, the integrity of McKeever’s reading of the score was inviolable.

Appearing only in the final scene of Act Two, in which he plays the part of the notary engaged to prepare the marriage contract for Pasquale and the feigned Sofronia, Dottor Malatesta’s cousin Carlino was portrayed with faultless intonation, well-honed comedic timing, and an expert ‘et cetera’ by tenor Jackson Ray. Carlino’s few words were sung with brio, giving the momentary participant in the nuptial charade a distinct personality.

IN REVIEW: tenor KAMERON ALSTON as Ernesto in Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Ecco il nipote: tenor Kameron Alston as Ernesto in Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

In the rôle of Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto, whose love for the beguiling widow Norina is thwarted by his uncle’s grumbling disapproval, tenor Kameron Alston sang with theatrical conviction, convincing as both an ardent lover and a player in Malatesta’s stratagem to open Pasquale’s eyes to his own absurdity. Musically, the pliancy of his vocalism and his satin-textured timbre were reminiscent of the Ernesto of Cesare Valletti. His voicing of ‘Ci volea questa mania’ in the Act One duetto with Pasquale persuasively imparted the young man’s vexation at the ridiculousness of his uncle’s actions and arguments.

In the scene at the start of Act Two, Alston declaimed ‘Povero Ernesto!’ with heartfelt sincerity and lustrous tone, the young man’s despair touchingly conveyed. [The audience’s laughter reaffirmed that projected translations are sometimes the enemy of the intended sentiments of music and text.] The larghetto aria ‘Cercherò lontana terra’ was deftly sung, the tenor’s phrasing eloquently sculpting the line and effortlessly conquering the daunting tessitura, and his performance of the cabaletta, ‘E se fia che ad altro oggetto,’ ended with a courageous interpolated top D♭, was electrifying.

Each of Ernesto’s lines in the quartetto was enunciated with clarity and directness, and his singing in the brief scene with Malatesta in Act Three, in which Ernesto was apprised of his part in the final ruse, was unaffectedly ebullient. Quickly righting an early entry, Alston voiced the tuneful serenata ‘Com’è gentil a notte a mezzo april’ mesmerizingly and joined with Norina in a rapturous performance of the notturno, ‘Tornami a dir che m’ami.’ Ernesto finally obtaining Pasquale’s blessing of his relationship with Norina, the ecstatic lover’s joy emanated from Alston’s charismatic singing and acting.

IN REVIEW: soprano CREE CARRICO as Norina in Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]La suora laica: soprano Cree Carrico as Norina in Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Piedmont Opera equaled an exceptionally strong ensemble of male principals by casting scene-stealing soprano Cree Carrico as Norina, the clever widow who masquerades as the fresh-from-the-convent ingenue Sofronia in order to dupe Don Pasquale. From the start of her cavatina in Act One, ‘So anch’io la virtù magica,’ this Norina was a dynamo, each of her words articulated with dramatic intention that required no translations her trill and top C deployed with technical acumen and bewitching insouciance. The cabaletta ‘Ho testa bizzarra’ was charmingly sung, bringing the playful lady’s character into focus before she sparred dazzlingly with Malatesta in their duetto.

Largely avoiding soubrettish shrillness, Carrico was a Norina who weaponized her upper register, especially in Acts Two and Three: notes above the stave were fired like rockets, never missing their targets. Her utterance of ‘Come? Un uomo! Oh, me meschina’ in the terzetto with Malatesta and Pasquale was marvelously coy, and each phrase in the quartetto was delivered with panache. The voice scintillated in ‘A star cheto e non far scene’ in the Act Three duetto with Pasquale, and Carrico elucidated the wave of regret and empathy that swept over Norina after she slapped Pasquale. Her vocalism in the notturno with Ernesto was arrestingly lovely, and ‘La morale in tutto questo,’ the opera’s rondò finale, was sung with valedictory brilliance. Carrico’s Sofronia was aptly shrewish, but her Norina’s sunny nature always shone in voice and gesture.

IN REVIEW: baritone MICHAEL REDDING as Dottor Malatesta in Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Il medico scaltro: baritone Michael Redding as Dottor Malatesta in Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Michael Redding’s vivacious portrayal of the cunning Dottor Malatesta splendidly validated the baritone’s popularity with Piedmont Opera audiences. In the Dottor’s opening scene with Pasquale in Act One, Redding sang boldly, communicating Malatesta’s pleasure in his own shrewdness, and his ardent performance of the larghetto cantabile paean to Sofronia’s virtues, ‘Bella sicome un angelo,’ convinced Pasquale and the audience of the girl’s exquisite qualities. Briefing Norina on her rôle in his plan to deflate Pasquale’s ego, this Malatesta relished every word, machinating with irrepressible glee. Putting his plan into action in Act Two, Redding voiced ‘Fresca uscita di convento’ in the terzetto with Norina and Pasquale with perfect comedic suggestiveness, and his galvanizing singing of ‘Non oseris, son certo’ and Malatesta’s part in the quartetto exuded conspiratorial exuberance.

After apprising Ernesto of the final phase of Pasquale’s disgracing in their scene in Act Three, Redding’s Malatesta united with Pasquale in an uproarious traversal of their celebrated duetto, the baritone voicing ‘Noi due soli andiam sul loco’ forcefully and adroitly dispatching the daunting patter, meriting the traditional encore of the piece’s unison conclusion. In the final scene, too, Malatesta’s lines were sung with unmistakable and infectious joy. A couple of Redding’s highest notes sounded raspy (it was a windy afternoon in the hyper-pollenated South, after all), but the voice was as striking as the characterization, making his Malatesta an endearing prankster and an obvious ancestor of Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone BRAD SMOAK in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © Piedmont Opera]Lo scapolo idoneo: bass-baritone Brad Smoak in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

The scornful snobbery towards ‘regional companies’ by some opera aficionados was incontrovertibly defied by Piedmont Opera’s engagement of a Don Pasquale who possessed every quality demanded by the part, from a two-octave range without weakness to a bonafide trill. Luigi Lablache, the bass who created the title rôle, marked his forty-eighth birthday a month before the first performance of Don Pasquale—more dotardly by Nineteenth-Century standards than by today’s but hardly a musical Methuselah. Bass-baritone Brad Smoak was wholly credible as a man of advancing years, but hearing a voice on peak form in Pasquale’s music was incredibly gratifying. From his first appearance in Act One, Smoak’s Pasquale was unquestionably a crotchety codger but also proved to be one who sang ‘Son nov’ore’ and ‘Non, c’è ma, correte’ with absolute security and unflagging imagination. The duetto with Ernesto asked nothing of Smoak that he could not supply in spades, his voicing of ‘Scherzo un corno’ earning the audience’s mirth.

Smoak sang ‘Quando avrete introdotto’ in the Act Two terzetto with Norina and Malatesta incisively, Pasquale’s disbelief at the good fortune of finding a wife as attractive and accommodating as Sofronia zealously evinced. His singing in the quartetto was no less diverting, each word sounded with intelligence. ‘Per poco che la duri in questo modo’ at the beginning of Act Three was delivered with exasperation, and ‘È finita, Don Pasquale, hai bel romperti la testa!’ in the duetto with Norina was at once droll and affecting. In the famous duetto with Malatesta, ‘Cheti, cheti, immantinente,’ Smoak’s vocalism dazzled, the patter sung with bravado and unflappable accuracy. Palpably relieved to be parted from Sofronia, this Pasquale accepted defeat graciously. The character may have undergone a well-deserved humbling, but Smoak’s performance awed. Even a lackluster production of Don Pasquale with a protagonist like Smoak’s too-debonair-to-be-decrepit Don at its core would have moments of success, but there was no moment in Piedmont Opera’s Don Pasquale that failed to enchant.