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OPERA REVIEW : Stylish ‘Don Pasquale’ in San Diego

Times Music Critic

For some blissfully unaccustomed, patently coincidental reason, this has been bel-canto season in Southern California.

The Music Center recently exhumed Rossini’s “Tancredi,” while Opera Pacific offered Bellini’s “Norma” as a prelude to Rossini’s “Barbiere.” San Diego began a Donizetti mini-survey with the pretty madness of “Lucia” and, for a sprightly encore, turned Saturday night to “Don Pasquale.”

All this in an area that suffered just a couple of years ago from chronic operatic deprivation. There may be hope.

After San Diego’s disastrous effort last month to transform Beethoven’s “Fidelio” into a relevant political farce, one approached the Civic Theatre with some trepidation. Would “Don Pasquale” take place in the Persian Gulf? Would the crusty Roman septuagenarian resemble a womanizing cabinet nominee or inhabit a space ship? Would the ancient formula intrigues be fraught with neo-socio-symbolic meanings?

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The answers turned out to be negative. Relief.

This, essentially, was the 19th-Century opera buffa we know and love. It required, and received, no aesthetic rethinking, no temporal updating, no theatrical embellishing.

Using the charming storybook decors designed by John Conklin for the San Francisco Opera, Wolfgang Weber was content to stage the comedy of mannerisms as a reasonably witty period piece. Even when the humor tended toward the ponderous, his action scheme remained picturesque and stylish.

Weber’s ideas--even the sporadic dubious ones--were deftly executed by a handsome, resourceful, generally youthful ensemble. For better or worse--mostly better--this was a team effort unjarred by star turns.

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As the classically duped, generously forgiving protagonist, Francois Loup resisted the usual comic cliches. He discovered a welcome trace of pathos behind the old man’s grouchy facade, and sang quite beautifully. One wanted to forgive his proclivity for mugging and to forget his weakness for scene-stealing.

Cheryl Parrish sang the first Norina of her fast-rising career. She chirped with reasonable bravura, a fuzzy trill notwithstanding, and commanded the stage with easy bravado. She also dampened delight somewhat by reducing the quixotic, essentially sympathetic heroine to one very tough cookie.

Mark DuBois as the ardent Ernesto sounded voice-sick, not just love-sick. Although no apologies were offered on his behalf, his tastefully employed tenorino all but strangled in the stratosphere. One would like to blame his problems on physical indisposition rather than technical indiscretion.

Victor Ledbetter of the San Francisco Opera Center revealed a flair for the debonair and correspondingly elegant vocalism as Malatesta, the quintessentially wily baritone. Remember his name.

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The chorus of motley servants, trained by Martin Wright, looked unusually animated and sounded exceptionally mellifluous.

Everyone in the cast seemed willing and able to shape Donizetti’s graceful, grateful cantilena with expressive freedom. Any such effort was doomed, unfortunately, by Karen Keltner, who conducted with unyielding, mechanical brio. At least she kept the articulation crisp and the textures light.


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