The impact of a chamber opera in a small space can be as telling as a blockbuster in a large arena. Opera New Jersey’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s farce “Don Pasquale” makes the point. The performance in McCarter’s Berlind Theater on Saturday, July 17, was a perfect gem. Every facet sparkled. Veteran ONJ collaborator Michael Scarola directed the work. Set in 19th century Rome, the opera is sung in Italian and has English supertitles.
For the ears, the overture, with curtain down, foretells the evening. Mark Laycock, conducting members of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, promises a busy, playful experience. Laycock for a quarter century conducted the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. Under his leadership the opera orchestra played with musical lightness and propulsion. Solos for cello and bassoon declared the skill and sensitivity of the instrumental underpinnings before the action began.
The curtain rises to reveal Don Pasquale (Steven Condy), an old bachelor, in bed, night cap and all, awakening. (Patricia Hibbert designed the costumes.) In his 70s, Pasquale has decided to marry in order to disinherit his nephew, Ernesto (Brian Anderson). Pasquale disapproves of Ernesto’s attraction for Norina (Ava Pine).
Malatesta, Pasquale’s doctor and friend (Liam Bonner), suggests his sister, Sofronia, as a bride for Pasquale. When Pasquale meets Sofronia, he is rejuvenated. The audience experiences his renewed youthful ardor as lighting designer Ken Yunker bathes the scene in the red glow of blood boiling.
Sofronia, however, does not actually exist. Malatesta has persuaded Norina to impersonate the supposed sister. After a mock wedding mediated by a mock notary (Wesley Landry), Sofronia/Norina teaches Pasquale a lesson by tormenting him. As Pasquale’s wife, Sofronia is both spendthrift and shrew. At one point, dressed in a long hot pink off-the-shoulder dress, she ties Pasquale to a chair with her long hot pink scarf. (Thanks, director Scarola and costume designer Hibbert.) Pasquale is relieved when she decides to leave him. As herself, Norina marries Ernesto. Pasqale gives his blessing to the match.
Composer Donizetti’s writing invites elegance and leanness. The opera’s principals are the elemental soprano (Norina — Ava Pine), alto (tenor Ernesto — Brian Anderson), tenor (baritone Malatesta — Liam Bonner) and bass (Don Pasquale — Steven Condy). With his bel canto flourishes Donizetti presents multiple fire-and-ice opportunities. We hear them in solo arias, in the many splendid duets of the opera, and in a quartet. Particularly notable are a pre-Gilbert and Sullivan double patter aria by Pasquale and Malatesta and a duet where Pasquale and Norina trill simultaneously.
The performance takes advantage of the changing textures that Donizetti wrote into the opera. A cappella singing by the chorus of servants provides a change of pace and exemplifies on-target intonation, clean delivery, and rhythmic accuracy. Keith Chambers is the chorus master.
Another change in texture comes from the solo trumpet that accompanies a solo aria by Ernesto.
Laycock’s band helps out by furnishing dramatic silences that last for exactly the right amount of time.
The star of the evening is the sole woman in a principal role, soprano Ava Pine. She is a comely Norina who floats across the stage. Her vocal accuracy, emotion, buoyancy, and appropriate movement are matched by her male colleagues.
Surprisingly, “Don Pasquale” is not frequently performed. Maybe it is a difficult piece. Opera New Jersey makes it look easy.
“Don Pasquale,” Opera New Jersey, Berlind at McCarter Theater. Sunday, July 25, 2 p.m.; Friday, July 30, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, August 1, 7 p.m. 609-258-2787 or www.opera-nj.org.