Don Pasquale at Opera Naples

Opera Naples’ ‘Don Pasquale’: Bridezilla with a lava lamp

By Harriet Howard Heithaus of the Naples Daily News
Photo credit: Scott McIntyre

Steven Condy doesn’t look like a fool, and he’s not. He knows the potential in playing the cantankerous, con-able Don Pasquale, title character in the Donizetti opera. He may be getting fooled by his nephew and his physician in cahoots with the cagey Norina, but he also is getting lots of stage time and aria stardom.

The one thing he won’t get in the Opera Naples production of “Don Pasquale” is a sweet little submissive wife. While the famous opera’s comic plot may be silly by today’s standards — arranged marriages are passe in this country, at least — the delicious execution of a sophisticated joke is timeless.

Condy has played the Don dozens of times, and he says he brings more empathy to it now.

“Of course you get to know a character when you live with him this long. You add life experiences,” he said. “The things that are wonderful about him is that at 70, he’s spry, and he really wants to get married. He’s ready to take the plunge.”

One of his favorite arias in the opera, Condy said, one not often excerpted, is Don Pasquale’s in the opening act: “He’s doing this dance around the room singing, ‘Hey, I’m going to get married!'”

On the other side of the ledger, “he’s headstrong, he’s not compassionate — he doesn’t know how to relate to people like his nephew.”

That will be Pasquale’s undoing when his friend, Dr. Malatesta (played by Jonathan Beyer), pairs him up with Norina, fiancée of Pasquale’s errant nephew, Ernesto. Norina (played by Hailey Clark) is ready to slice and dice Pasquale’s illusions about marriage as soon as he signs the papers; she won’t spend the first night with her husband, prefers Ernesto for her evening walk and immediately — does this sound familiar, guys? — turns a decorator’s eye on his bachelor pad.

In this case, that includes carting pink lava lamps and throw pillows into Pasquale’s paneled-wall, beanbag chair existence. Stage director Jeffrey Buchman, who created Opera Naples’ staging for “Faust” two seasons ago, set the story in the early 1970s, with its deep tones and distinctive — if that’s the right word — furniture.

A centerpiece of the Pasquale home is this credenza with a record player in it, like we all had at home,” said Buchman, who also used depictions of fabric to create screen backdrops. Grass wallpaper, anyone? “There never was a period so cool and uncool at the same time.”

That inspiration materialized from Italian films of the era, the popular movies of Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren that Buchman likened to the commedia dell’arte of “Don Pasquale”: “It was a very sexually charged, very funny, era of Italian cinema.”

Buchman says he and the staff ran with idea, even offering the credits in a TV sitcom-style typeface. “Don Pasquale,” he said, has the capacity to engage on all fronts: “People can come to this show, laugh, be entertained and go away loving opera.”

It’s one of the three most popular Italian comic operas of all time, alongside Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and Donizetti’s own “L’elisir d’amore,” Ramón Tebar, music director of Opera Naples, pointed out.

“It has everything bel canto can offer, ” declared Tebar. “It has the wonderful duet at the end that is only four pages but it’s so beautiful. One of two arias sopranos always audition with is Norina’s from Act One.”

(For an excerpt from Norina’s opening aria, see the story at naplesnews.com.)

While the role of Ernesto, Pasquale’s nephew isn’t a major one, William Davenport, who played Rodolfo in Opera Naples’ “La Boheme” is in it. He’s following major stars like Luciano Pavarotti and Alfredo Kraus, who also sang it because of its gorgeous music.

“Ernesto is really, really tough tenor part. The arias of the first and second act, especially with the trumpet, are extremely challenging,” he said.