Full of comic characters enmeshed in concealed identities, secret trysts in the garden and one disastrous (fake) marriage, “Pasquale” plays out at the Civic Opera House with broad humor delivered in elegant taste.
The title character is well into his 70s and wants Ernesto, his nephew and only heir, to wed a wealthy woman of the old man’s choosing. Ernesto, who loves the beautiful young Norina, refuses. Pasquale disinherits him and decides to seek a young wife himself and produce his own heirs!
Ernesto goes into a tailspin, only to be rescued by Pasquale’s erstwhile friend Dr. Malatesta and the spunky Norina. Malatesta presents the disguised Norina to Pasquale as a suitable bride, passing her off as his convent-bred sister. She feigns shyness and compliance, but once the marriage contact is signed, she turns into a shrewish shop-a-holic, and he soon wishes to be rid of her.
In the tradition of comic operas, there is a Hollywood ending, in which the bogus marriage is revealed and Ernesto and Norina are together. Delusional no more, Pasquale is given a wheelchair and a white lap cat for his declining years.
The voices in this bel canto piece are exceptional. Don Pasquale is sung by Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo with bravado and pathos. He is well-matched by Malatesta, sung by American baritone Corey Crider, an alum of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center.
Another Ryan alum, American tenor Rene Barbera plays Ernesto, and his soaring voice is a perfect fit for this character, whose moods swing from despair to joy.
The pivotal person, however, is the adorable Norina, a wily match for any man, old or young. German soprano Marlis Petersen makes the role her own, with her strong comedic skills and shining voice.
We meet her in the second scene, as she takes down her laundry on a sunlit rooftop in Rome. Her circumstances are in striking contrast to Pasquale’s posh home with its long double-staircase and multiple doors.
Ensemble numbers are characteristic of operas written in the mid-19th century, and “Don Pasquale” is no exception. The duet between Malatesta and Norina in the second scene is tons of fun, accompanied by some amusing stage business—Malatesta even helps to take down the laundry! For this we can thank director Sir Thomas Allen. This is the famous English baritone’s directorial debut at Lyric, and we hope to see his deft touch again soon.
Vocal combos abound, including a fast and furious duet between Malatesta and Don Pasquale. Members of Lyric’s chorus appear portraying new servants Norina has hired and merchants delivering her hats, gowns and other purchases, all to the dismay of poor Don Pasquale.
Stephen Lord conducts the Lyric Orchestra. At one point, a rich trumpet solo rises from the pit, briefly evoking one of Nino Rota’s themes in his score for “The Godfather.”
The sets, whether Don Pasquale’s grand home, his lavish garden or Norina’s sunny rooftop, are beautifully realized, thanks to the designs of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
This opera has great moments of both hilarity and heart-break, It would be a lovely introduction to opera for young hearts of all ages.
In fact, Lyric presents a 70-minute version at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, titled “Popcorn and Pasquale” for families, with Ross Lehman as host.
“Don Pasquale” runs at the Civic Opera House, 30 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago Nov. 28 at 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 6 at 2 p.m.; and Dec. 8, 10 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call 312-332-2244 or visit the Civic Opera House website.