The time is the 1950s, the place Hollywood. And the opera? Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” first seen in 1843 in Paris. Say what?
Odd as it seems, there’s nothing terribly unusual about the production that opened Minnesota Opera’s new season Saturday evening. Like so many opera productions nowadays it updated the action to the present, or somewhere close to it. Why? To clarify plot and character for modern audiences. Too bad if you prefer opera as costume drama, or bridle at cars appearing in 19th-century settings.
By and large, though, this particular “Don Pasquale” worked. This production premiered three years ago at Arizona Opera, whose general director at the time was Ryan Taylor, now Minnesota Opera’s president and general director.
As a buy-in from Arizona, director Chuck Hudson’s staging had plenty of bang-for-buck impact. His Pasquale was reimagined as a washed-up silent movie star, wallowing in past glories.
Norina, whom Pasquale is duped into marrying, was a feisty Hollywood starlet, first spotted in a foam-flecked bathtub, suffused with pink-blush lighting.
Both characters were colorfully sung and acted. Bass-baritone Craig Colclough, reprising the role he debuted at Arizona, was a bluff, blustering Pasquale, adept at comic smirks, double-takes and mild attacks of lechery.
Colclough sang resonantly, except when marooned behind a desk at the rear of the stage area. His Act Three patter duet with the scheming Dr. Malatesta (sung by baritone Andrew Wilkowske) was a highlight. Prompted by the surtitles, they encored it, to a wildly enthusiastic reception.
Soprano Susannah Biller was a Norina to be reckoned with, slapping, shoving and verbally abusing Pasquale in an effort to secure the quickest divorce in operatic history. Biller’s voice had sauce and stamina, and the technical flexibility to execute the testing trills that Donizetti gave her.
The sweetest singing of the evening came from tenor David Walton, as Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto. A true lyric tenor with strong Italianate stylings, he poured a taste of honey on the top notes in Act One’s “Sogno soave e casto,” as well as on Act Three’s love song to Norina.
The chorus sang punchily, and had fun dressing up as Hollywood luminaries — although an audience member needed to consult the plot summary to understand why they were onstage.
A tendency to overdo sight gags — the gown-twirling notary was particularly irritating — and a slightly flat, perfunctory denouement were the only real weaknesses in Hudson’s clever reimagining of the action.
Peter Nolle’s set, the proscenium edged by perforations from celluloid film stock, played on Pasquale’s silent movie past, as did the witty video footage used to cover scene changes. Conductor Jonathan Brandani drew crisp, idiomatic playing from the orchestra, and kept the singers securely strapped in during the faster numbers.
Updating operas is a hazardous business. It can smack of condescension and trendyism. Not here. This “Don Pasquale” sparkled and remained true to the warm heart of Donizettian comedy.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.