Countless movie comedies and TV shows have spun variations on the age-old theme of what happens when men of a certain age take much-younger brides, that we almost forget Gaetano Donizetti was there long before.
His "Don Pasquale" opened in 1843 and has remained firmly enshrined in the repertory ever since. Has ever an operatic comedy been more perfectly constructed? Opera companies take this sparkling gem of bel canto out of its jewel box whenever they believe they have found singers who can do justice to the four vocally demanding principal roles.
Lyric Opera has done well by Donizetti's endearing opera buffa, which opened Sunday afternoon at the Civic Opera House. The show really shouldn't have worked as well as it did, given the curious casting, the ancient production and the fact that three of the four principal singers were making role debuts. But it came off as a winning team effort, with everyone including the orchestra and chorus under conductor Stephen Lord proving once again the durability of this 169-year-old sitcom.
British baritone Thomas Allen, who was making his Lyric directing debut, knows "Don Pasquale" backwards and forwards, having sung countless performances as Dr. Malatesta, the quick-witted rogue who engineers the deception on which the plot hinges. Indeed, he sang the role for the first time with London's Royal Opera way back in 1973 when this Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production was new. (Since then, the well-worn sets and costumes have become the property of Dallas Opera.) His staging was witty and affectionate.
Lord kept things perking along with a light hand on the controls, securing crisp articulation and pliant phrasing from an orchestra that had to unlearn its recent Verdi and Massenet before it could play idiomatic Donizetti. There were enough cuts to eliminate needless repetition, which streamlined the show's length to a practicable 2 3/4 hours. Some dodgy brass playing early on did not dampen a generally fizzy performance. Donizetti's tuneful score wore a big smile.
For Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo to trade his image as opera's hunky seducer for the crotchety title role was something of a gamble. But, in fact, Lyric's former Escamillo and Figaro brought off his first Pasquale with surprising credibility, even panache.
Having forbidden his nephew Ernesto to marry a good but penniless girl, Pasquale plans to take a young wife himself, little realizing that his bride-to-be, his friend Malatesta's alleged sister, "Sofronia," is really Ernesto's sweetheart, Norina; she too is complicit in Malatesta's scheme to trick Pasquale into giving the lovers his consent. The deception is revealed (in record time) at the end, and Pasquale learns his lesson. He gets a wheelchair and a white pussycat as consolation prizes.
D'Arcangelo modulated his burly bass-baritone to suit Pasquale's music. His phrasing was stylish and he savored the words as if they were a fine San Giovese. It was fun to watch this Pasquale stick out his gut, flap his jowls, adjust his wig and throw himself into all the other shtick the director devised for him. When the don's harridan of a bride slapped him in a moment of pique, the audience's heart went out to poor Pasquale, the victim of – let's face it – a very cruel joke.
The show's spark plug was Marlis Petersen, Lyric's well-remembered Lulu in the Alban Berg opera, playing a very different femme fatale here. From the second act on, her Norina seized control of the proceedings – with more brass than charm, but convincingly. The German soprano is the only one of the four principals to have sung her role prior to Chicago, and it showed in the agility of her coloratura and the tough-cookie spirit she brought to her portrayal.
Indeed, Petersen really sank her acting teeth into her transformation from the pretend-demure Sofronia – a veiled young thing fresh from the convent – to the shrew from hell who bossed her bewildered hubby, hired hordes of servants and ran up huge bills. Only a touch of hardness and edginess at the top detracted from the quality of her singing.
For the two remaining male roles, Lyric turned to its deep bench of outstanding Ryan Opera Center alumni, with Rene Barbera and Corey Crider each doing yeoman work in their role debuts.
Ernesto's music is a logical step in Barbera's development as a fine exponent of the Italian tenore di grazia (tenor of grace) roles. He delivered the hero's serenade and his part of the subsequent Ernesto-Norina duet with a bright, suave, healthy tenor, caressing the cantabile with stylish assurance. If ever there was a breakout role for Barbera at Lyric, this was it.
It could not have been easy for Crider to sing his first Malatesta under the watchful directorial eye of a veteran interpreter of that role. But the young American lyric baritone sang and acted with confident swagger, mustering a flair for the debonair in such numbers as the tongue-twisting patter duet with D'Arcangelo.
Bernard Holcomb of the Ryan Center took the cameo role of the Notary.
The chorus of motley servants sounded as if it had been thoroughly prepared by Martin Wright before last week's abrupt departure as chorus master, for what the company announced as "health reasons."
The somewhat faded if serviceable sets and costumes looked as if they had come straight out of a pop-up storybook version of early 19th century Rome. Pasquale's classically-appointed parlor, with its side staircases and second-level gallery, has held up well enough, even though the proportions aren't really right for a venue as large as the 3,500-seat Ardis Krainik Theatre.
"Don Pasquale" plays through Dec. 15 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $32-$239; 312-332-2244, ext. 5600; lyricopera.org.