After serving up an outstanding Madame Butterfly and a thrilling, provocative Aida, what was left for Opera Santa Barbara to do this season? If you answered “a comedy,” you have been paying attention, as the work that will be performed at the Granada this weekend, the Don Pasquale of Gaetano Donizetti, unquestionably fits that description. In his final opera buffa, Donizetti found a fresh approach to some of the most familiar stock characters from the commedia by shifting the emphasis from the young lovers to the old man who seeks to keep them apart.
Here, the rich old bachelor Don Pasquale has pledged to leave his wealth to his nephew Ernesto, but when Ernesto chooses to marry the charming but penniless Norina, a battle of wits ensues. Pasquale decides to disinherit Ernesto, take a bride, and father another heir himself. With the assistance of the conniving Dr. Malatesta, the thwarted couple comes up with a plan. Norina will become Sofronia, Malatesta’s sister from the convent, and when she meets and marries the unsuspecting Don Pasquale, the three schemers will have the old man right where they want him.
The demure Sofronia does wed the elderly Don, and no sooner is this done than she becomes a monster of coldness and excess, ignoring Don Pasquale while spending all of his money. In the end, it is too much for the old man, who gladly accedes to the marriage of the young pair simply in order to be free of this nightmarish liaison. While the trick may seem a cruel one, within the tradition of the pantalone, ordinarily an absolutely unsympathetic figure, Don Pasquale stands apart as that rare older man who still remains capable of serious change. I spoke with José Maria Condemi, the opera company’s artistic director, after a rehearsal last week, and he shared some thoughts on this final show of the 2012-2013 season.
With Madame Butterfly and then Aida, the shows this year have been serious, but now, with Don Pasquale, you are moving on to a comedy. How are you approaching it? It’s true, Don Pasquale is a lighthearted comedy, and that was our intention with the programming of this year, to move through the more serious pieces and then finish with something light. But even in the lightest of comic operas, the human dimension of the characters needs to be there. Anyone can do the jokes; what a good cast brings to Don Pasquale is the sense that these are people with real depth of feeling.
Typically the older man who stands in the way of the romance is not the main character of the opera. What makes Don Pasquale so important? Yes, there are other stories in which this type of figure is less central, but if you look at the ending, it’s easy to see that Don Pasquale has the biggest transformation. That’s what makes him the main character — he changes the most. For him to accept the marriage of Norina and Ernesto takes a big shift in attitude, and he does accept it, so that’s a big thing for him.
What is it about the situation that brings about this change in Don Pasquale? And why does that matter to the opera? To a certain extent, he just gives up out of being exhausted. But the story has many different levels, and although on the level of the plot Don Pasquale is being outwitted and made a fool — this is the fun element, and the music that goes with it is frivolous — on another level, the story is also soulful, and so is the music. The lovers have a duet in Act III, Tornami a dir che m’ami — “Say again that you love me” — that’s one of the greatest serious love duets in the entire repertoire. The power of Don Pasquale is that it has it all; there’s plenty of silliness, but there are also all these other flavors that make the experience more fulfilling.
From the director point of view, what is the key to creating a successful production of Don Pasquale? You need great singers who are also really good actors. It might seem like you could get away with bad acting as long as the music was done right, but even though this is a comedy, that’s not the case. For Don Pasquale to work correctly, you need a team that will take the fun very seriously. If you have that, then the ending is very powerful. The lovers are blown away by Don Pasquale’s change of heart.
Don Pasquale will be presented by Opera Santa Barbara at the Granada Theatre (1213 State St.) on Friday, April 26, at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, April 28, at 2:30 p.m. Call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org for tickets and information.