By Harriet Howard Heithaus of the Naples Daily News
Photo Credit: Scott McIntyre
The question in Opera Naples’ production of “Don Pasquale” isn’t who is going to win Norina’s hand in the end. It’s who’s going to outdo whom next.
Thanks to Music Director Ramó Tebar, vocal values were so strong at Thursday’s performance each new stage entry brought fresh anticipation. Steven Condy’s Pasquale was everything the vain male cougar needed, plus acting ability.
But then baritone Jonathan Beyer as Dr. Malatesta arrived, smug and solicitous and in commanding baritone as the spark plug for a plot to teach the egotistic Don a lesson. Then William Davenport, as Ernesto, bemoaned being written out of the don’s will in such a warm expressive tenor anyone — except his headstrong uncle — would give the poor boy a share.
By the time, Hailey Clark, a Norina with both attitude and compassion, reached the stage, we were expecting something great. She delivered, driving the café waiter mad and picking her brother’s pocket while she cheerfully warbled about her feminine powers in a strong, sweet bel canto soprano.
Actually, this “Don Pasquale” was an evening of upstaging. Three supernumeraries took on comic roles — getting twirled around the stage, chasing Pasquale with an atomizer before his intended wedding and generally keeping the set intact through a pillow tossing session. Take a bow William Lindsay (who played both a waiter and a butler), Alyssa Haney as Pasquale’s spunky maid and Mary Jane Oliveira as the cook.
Even the 1970-era set managed to jerk leashes, causing titters in the audience as Pasquale pulled out iconic albums anyone who lived through the ’70s could identify even without seeing the names. Stage Director Jeffrey Buchman larded in 1970 notions with abandon: a bilious pink-and-purple lava lamp that dominated the second act like a Buddha, beanbag chairs and a stereo cabinet as big as a cattle trough. Backdrop shots showing textures and a knobbed TV with inset movement set the mood through effects such as rain.
“Don Pasquale” has a plot so thin you could read pill-bottle print through it, and Opera Naples wisely chose to ramp up its slapstick. There’s plenty of opportunity for sight gags while singers round the bases to the next aria and during the longer pieces, and Buchman took advantage of nearly all of them. For instance, into her second verse of Norina’s famous opening aria, Clark carries on a flirtation with the senior waiter, untying his apron and then hugging him to tie it back around him from his front, fairly causing a heart attack.
This cast gets it about theatrics, taking on the comic aspects of their roles with zeal. Davenport alone could have used a bit more expression and flexibility and less concert-style standing. But his rendition of the balcony ballad “Com’è gentil” in Act 3 was so sweet and vulnerable it went home in my head. Likewise, Clark somersaulted through her tough runs with bell clarity and purity — she is an impressive young soprano whose name will likely show up in larger venues soon.
It wasn’t perfect. The orchestra, which started strong in the opening overture, seemed to lose steam as the evening progressed, with string fatigue the most noticeable. A couple of the costumes for the huskier men also looked uncomfortable, which, for the audience, trumps whether they actually were. The orchestra, too, looked squeezed, with 14 musicians in a shoe box space next to the stage.
Largely, however, if one needed a text proof for why “Don Pasquale” is considered among the top three comic opera, Opera Naples had it Thursday evening. (There is another performance Saturday.)