The big disappointment with Merola Opera Program’s production of Don Pasquale is that it's gone. This first-class presentation of Donizetti's gorgeously melodic comedy received only two performances, even though it should have been seen and heard by many more.
At the Saturday, August 8, matinee performance at Fort Mason Center’s Cowell Theater, everything clicked: The cast of young artists performed at their best, and Warren Jones conducted a fine orchestra with panache, coming close to overwhelming the singers only a few times. Two substantial instrumental solos — Mary True's cello and William Harvey's trumpet obbligato — were outstanding.
Nic Muni's imaginative if somewhat overcomplicated production was executed well on Donald Eastman's striking stage design.
The first of Muni's staging ideas was a clear winner. Pasquale, the mean, old, rich guy who wants to marry a young woman, appears in a Hazmat suit, suffering from extreme mysophobia and hiding from a hostile world of germs. Besides being funny, especially in James Ioelu's convincing vocal and stage performance, the setup makes sense of Pasquale's dependence on Dr. Malatesta (Alex DeSocio), whose manipulation of Pasquale is the main story of the opera.
The director's other shtick, placing the story in the framework of a Hollywood production made little sense; although it provided some laughs and gave uncredited Merolini a chance to put on a skit. Fortunately, the shtick was abandoned halfway through instead of forcing the concept on the work. (The director in the film bit was Chris Bozeka, the diva caricature Cree Carrico.)
The Pasquale-Maletesta pairing was ideal. DeSocio, a baritone from Kansas, provided a worthy fellow protagonist to Ioelu, a big-voiced bass-baritone from New Zealand. Both showed well-projected voices, with good diction: Their interactions and duets were among highlights of the matinee, along with Amina Edris’ star performance as Norina, the object of everyone’s attention. The soprano from Christchurch built the vocal performance throughout the opera, gaining focus and strength to a brilliant finish.
Foisted by Malatesta on Pasquale as a bride from hell, Norina has the dual challenge of vocal acrobatics and thespian virtuosity, and Edris did equally well at both. She was convincing when pretending to be a shy convent girl (the ruse to hook Pasquale) and later as the elder-abusing harpy (to force Pasquale out of the sham marriage).
Edris' portrayal of Norina's pretend-personalities was so strong that the third face of the heroine — Norina as herself — did not seem fully developed. This might have been the result of directorial inattention or insufficient chemistry between Edris and Korean tenor Soonchan Kwon, who sang Ernesto, the underdog who wins Norina at the end, thanks to Malatesta's machinations.
On the whole, Don Pasquale was one of the best of Merola's staged-opera presentations and would have strong "legs" if there were additional performances. Pasquale also served as yet another reminder that the Aug. 22 Grand Finale of the 2015 Merola Program should not be missed.