Don Pasquale: a colorful season starter at Minnesota Opera
Minnesota Opera opened their 55th Anniversary season with a well-received production of Donizetti's Don Pasquale. The production by Chuck Hudson was set in 1950s Hollywood, with Don Pasquale as a Norma Desmond-like character, a famous screen actor from the bygone days of silent films (complete with a bald butler carrying a pet gorilla). During the overture, a video screen came down to introduce the character Don Pasquale to the audience. What ensued was a silent film starring the cast of the production (reminiscent to Rolando Villazon's production of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore at Baden-Baden Festspielhaus). The Sheik of Arabia was the Don's crowning glory in the 1920s, but, in trying to repeat the success, the sequel to Sheik was a flop. Newspaper reels and clippings with headlines of "Talkies all the rage" segued the audience into the first act of the opera.
The curtain opened on Don Pasquale contemplating his Oscar statue; the stage was all black and white through a combination of lighting, gray covers, and make-up. When the conniving Doctor Malatesta comes in to set the plot in motion by offering his sister's hand in marriage, the set slowly become "technicolor." Through lighting as well as physical gray coverings that were removed by servants, the "release" of technicolor in the set was used to show how Don Pasquale's world is changing around him.
As usual the singing at the Minnesota Opera was superb, most notably Ernesto, played by tenor David Walton, whose pure relaxed high notes were one of the highlights of the night. The title character, sung by Craig Colclough, was in fine form vocally and dramatically — he did his best Gloria Swanson impressions. His physicality was spot on and garnered many hearty laughs.
Norina, Susannah Biller, had a glittering tone and a honed comedic timing. Her virginal shyness when first being introduced "fresh from the convent" to Don Pasquale was hilarious. In a well-timed moment of revelation, Norina removed a tear off dress that revealed her true colors.
This production had an entertaining concept, though I wish it had been taken further. The "release" of the technicolor was not gradual enough to stay present in the audience minds in the second and third act. Additionally, Doctor Malatesta's apparel was changed into vibrant colors but the Don's was not. It would have been interesting for his clothes to change when he is at the end of his rope with Norina; then, when there was a happy ending to switch back to black and white. I believe that there would have been more of a full circle dramatically if that had happened. Essentially in this opera, Don Pasquale is relieved to go back to bachelorhood, therefore returning to the way he was in the beginning, in black and white.
During the interim music of changing scenes, the video screen came down another two times, providing the audience proof of Pasquale's attempts to reenter the film world (starring in a sci-fi film Robot Attack and writing and directing a western film with John Wayne). While very amusing, these cinematic interludes took away precious time from the stage, time that could have been spent developing the relationship between Norina and Ernesto before the opening scene. The relationship is not developed on stage before their meeting in Don Pasquale's house, therefore some staged moments during interludes showing their affection for each other would have helped endear this relationship.
Overall, this production had a wonderful entertainment value and would be a great first opera for many. I look forward to the next production, The Marriage of Figaro in November!