Dallas Opera’s current production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, which opened Friday night at the Winspear Opera House, stays close to tradition—a sharp contrast to the company’s other current production, a dark, iconoclastic rendition of Mozart’s Così fan tutte.
And there are plenty of good reasons for that approach. Both scores fall in the category of domestic, romantic comedies—and both are in Italian. But, while the Mozart begs and, at times, seems to insist on a layered, complex interpretation, Donizetti’s gentle farce of lechery thwarted by young love demands a straightforward presentation.
This production of Don Pasquale, using the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s decades-old, adamantly conventional sets and costume designs, places the action squarely in Europe in the early 1840s, exactly as Donizetti intended. Stage director Candace Evans avoided the mild slapstick that some productions of Don Pasquale fall back on, wisely relying on the natural energy and vivacity of the principal singers. Still, there were a few notable innovations, including the introduction of silent-movie-style pantomimes, performed in front of the curtain between scenes, with the captions explaining and commenting on the action. Scholars and connoisseurs of operatic stagecraft might want to take note of this new, expanded function of the caption, which, in this viewer’s experience, has heretofore been limited to presenting the sung text, or occasionally announcing a new act or setting.
Although the principal setting in this production, the main room of an aristocratic nineteenth-century residence, at first seemed almost too grand, too boxy, and too symmetrical, and the subtle, earth-colored costumes almost dull for an intimate comedy, this is clearly part of a well-thought visual plan. Boldly colored accessories gradually appear as the opera progresses, the chorus enters in sugary pastels, and Norina, the heroine of the tale, appears in gradually more showy, colorful costume before emerging at last in elegant bridal white; the emergence of hundreds of glistens stars in the dark backdrop of the final garden scene add a magical, romantic touch at the end.
Of course, Don Pasquale comes from a time and place when singing—beautiful, glorious singing—was the raison d’etre of any opera. And this production is blessed with an ensemble of brilliantly gifted singers in the bel canto style. Slovakian soprano Adriana Kucerova, making her American debut as Norina, owns a gloriously flexible and beautiful voice, and bounds about the stage with youthful energy; she seems likely to join the impressive list of singers who took their first American bows in Dallas. Veteran bass Donato DiStefano takes on the title role with a nicely modulated sense of comedy, while American tenor Norman Shankle performs the part of Ernesto with a fine, light voice. Baritone Nathan Gunn brings a radiantly beautiful high baritone voice to the part of the conniving Malatesta. For this production, director Evans presents the notary Carlino as a lecherous drunk, played with convincing dysfunctionality by bass John Sauvey, a young singer who trained at Baylor and UNT.
In the pit, conductor Stefano Ranzani found the perfect balance of lyricism and subtlety; in this opera, the orchestra exists to support the singers, and in this production, it played its role perfectly.