Theatre Reviews
Christine Lyons as Norina, Peter Kendall Clark as Dr. Malatesta, and Andy Papas as Don Pasquale at Union Avenue Opera. Photo by Dan Donovan

By Benjamin Torbert

The second production of Union Avenue Opera’s 2023 season, “Don Pasquale” (which ran from 28 July to 5 August 2023) proved just as successful as the first. This opera’s comedy is a bit harder to execute amusingly than Donizetti’s often performed and utterly bulletproof “L’Elisir d’Amore,” (“The Elixir of Love”) but the quartet of leads elicited laughs all night. Jon Truitt’s production updated the action to 1930ish, about ninety years after the work’s composition and much later than the frequently used 18 century setting; this update tilled a fertile field for costume designer Teresa Doggett in particular. “Pasquale” is harder to get right than “Elixir,” and UAO performed the trick.

William Berger, the Metropolitan Opera’s color commentator for SiriusXM radio broadcasts, has observed that operas named for a character really are about that title character. With him I’ve discussed exceptions—few in number, usually proving the rule—chiefly Verdi’s warhorse “Il Trovatore,” centered far less on the troubadour of the title, than on his mother Azucena. Donizetti’s opera buffa “Don Pasquale” (1843) qualifies as such a counterexample. Pasquale, a basso buffo, certainly enjoys ample stage time, but he mainly provides the antecedent scenario and a foil for the soprano, Norina, who arrives in the second scene and carries the action thereafter.

The plot of Don Pasquale concerns that overworn comic monomyth, obstacles to a marriage. The young, widowed soprano Norina and the tenor Ernesto love each other, but are prevented from marrying until the final curtain, by an older bass, Pasquale, who evidently hasn’t mastered the half-your-age-plus-seven-years rule about dating. The baritone Malatesta acts as a double agent, pretending to aid Pasquale while running interference for Norina and Ernesto. Malatesta passes Norina off as “Sofronia,” his alleged sister, purportedly sprung from a convent for Pasquale’s matrimonial purposes. As Sofronia, Norina drives the old man mad by misspending his money, hiring more servants, and verbally challenging him, until he relents and the youngsters are free to boo up. That’s it—that’s the whole story. As such, this opera’s power to charm in 2023 relies on the score, packed with Donizetti’s customarily lovely arias and ensembles, and on the comedic nous of the four principles. For a contemporary audience, the modest feminism of Norina’s agency provides the engine for the libretto, centering her. The guys are easier to cast, but the girl absolutely must be IT, or the piece flops.

Enter lyric soprano, Christine Lyons, making her house debut, and one of the finest singers heard at this company in recent seasons. Saint Louis opera goers may remember her from a gorgeously sung “Norma” at Winter Opera four years ago. In attendance then, I was bowled over by the beauty of her voice. Her vibrato is faster than some, which is great as long as the singer possesses a beautiful timbre, as she does. A large company like Lyric Opera of Chicago that performs in a huge barn of an auditorium would cast a bigger voice as Norma, that summa of the Italian bel canto repertory, but in intimate confines at Chaminade, Lyons stuck the landing. This night, with the stage to herself for her Act I scene ii cavatina “So anch’io la virtù magica / I too know the magic power,” she decked the hall in secure fioriture. While she eschewed some of the optional high notes in the ensembles, she caressed the runs flowing down from D♭ in her aria, oozing radiance. Her voice sounded creamiest on /o/ vowels (“conosco, conosco”), and she made the whole affair seem effortless. She enjoyed genuinely funny chemistry with Peter Kendall Clark’s Malatesta as they hatched the “Sofronia” subterfuge.

By Act II, when Norina runs the whole show (“Provato ho a prenderti finora colle buone” / “I’ve tried to be gentle with you until now”), she projected exactly the right amount of me-first in the ensemble as she dommed Pasquale, her head voice soaring but also with some connected chest voice for seasoning. The climax of the drama in “Don Pasquale” occurs in Act III, when Norina actually slaps Pasquale; this has to be executed correctly, or it plays like elder abuse rather than slapstick, and Lyons deployed the required remorse after smacking Pasquale on her way to her date with the tenor. With two intermissions, “Don Pasquale” can feel long, but Lyons supplied thrilling trills in the closing ensemble.

Andy Papas’ sturdy basso buffo provided stout walls for Lyons to bounce off. He displayed great dramatic intelligence in positioning himself as the foil rather than a protagonist, and skillfully portrayed an ego-inflated man incrementally taken down several pegs—in Pasquale, Donizetti satirizes the bourgeoise. In case we’d missed anything, Pasquale’s portrait of himself, under which Papas posed stroking his beard in Act I, was replaced in Act III by another, of Norina in a manically triumphant stance. Papas excels in buffo repertory; regular UAO-goers will remember him as Dr Bartolo in the company’s mid-pandemic, 100˚F circus tent presentation of “The Barber of Seville.” His imagined ally and gentle double-crosser, Peter Kendall Clark, another UAO veteran (“Glory Denied,” “A Little Night Music”), was hilarious as Malatesta, funny in scenes with Lyons, and funnier yet in scenes with Papas. Clark’s dramatic range impresses, as those previous roles at UAO are wholly tragic (“Glory Denied”), and seriocomic (“Night Music”). Doggett had him properly zoot suited, but the circular shades recalled Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman.” He knows all the right things to do with a prop cigar, and his baritone filled the hall more than Papas’ bass-baritone. Their height differential intensified the comedy of dancing together in Act I, and side-splitting moments abounded, not least their crossing themselves during the notary scene in Act II, with Joel Rogier their straight man as Carlino.

As the tenore di grazia, Ernesto, the male cast was rounded out by UAO debutant Namarea Randolph-Yosea, whom you might have seen as Cephus in Opera Theatre Saint Louis’ landmark presentation of Scott Joplin and Damien Sneed’s “Treemonisha” earlier this summer. Donizetti gave the tenor some pretty music and little else to work with—the character’s main ingredient is cardboard, making it difficult to comprehend Norina’s steadfast romantic attachment to him. A 2023 Gerdine young artist at OTSL, Randolph-Yosea is still emerging, and the instrument could be better supported and probably will soon, but he communicated well the importance of being Ernesto in Act I—the character truly does believe that the potential, yet-unrealized loss of access to Norina is the most suffering anyone has ever endured. For me, the highest light of the whole score is the last duet for the young lovers, “Tornami a dir che m’ami / “Tell me again that you love me”—do yourself a favor and queue up Toti Dal Monte and Tito Schipa on YouTube. Here, Randolph-Yosea blended nicely with his more-seasoned romantic lead. UAO’s orchestra backed up the singers, mostly reliably, but they sounded a bit less secure under Stephen Hargreaves than when led by general/artistic director Scott Schoonover. Though there were some weird wind moments, Ann Homann’s pretty delivery of the Act II English Horn solo hit the mark. (Donizetti’s solemn lick became miles funnier in the 1970s, when Nino Rota nearly stole it for the “Godfather” film trilogy).

Jon Truitt’s direction and Laura Skroska’s set design worked well, especially those overlarge portraits of Pasquale and Norina, but Teresa Doggett’s costumes merit special mention. In addition to the zoot suit and pinstripe theme afforded the men, which Randolph-Yosea carried most elegantly, Lyons’ varied kit comprised unrelenting win. For her cavatina in Act I, she channeled Hedy Lamarr in a floofy, satiny white bed robe. As Norina pivots from sassy soubrette to unquestioned boss, white turned to red. A [purposely] failed attempt to make Lyons frumpy in a pale raincoat and oversize “hot librarian” specs when Malatesta introduces Sofronia to Pasquale gave way to a "va-va-voom" red dress with white piping, her look echoing Esther Jones, the African American singer who gave rise to Betty Boop. Doggett further turned up the heat and elegance with an absurdly beautiful red gown in Act III. The costume design integrated felicitously with Phil Touchette’s surtitles, frequently salted with artistic license in naming golden-age Hollywood actors contemporaneous to the setting. Pasquale hallucinated himself Cary Grant; Malatesta opined “this little Bette Davis will drive him nuts;” and Pasquale was described as “a dime-store Fatty Arbuckle.”

The updated setting proved exactly how to finesse the inherent flimsiness of this libretto, and one hopes to hear all the singers again. In tragedy, in comedy, and in between, the audience is unlikely to be disappointed at Union Avenue Opera. The 2023 season closes with the Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens musical “Ragtime,” 18-26 August.

Related Articles

Sign Up for KDHX Airwaves newsletter