Comic opera or opera buffa ended with a bang not a whimper when Donizetti brought his instantly popular Italian comedy Don Pasquale to the aptly named Comédie-Italienne in Paris at the beginning of 1843.
By early to mid 19th century the popular lighthearted buffa form was riding into the sunset. That important year Verdi would rise up with Nabucco in Italy and Wagner would launch The Flying Dutchman in Germany. Soon Grand Opera with its tragic dimensions; its ubiquitous ballets and bustling crowds would sweep the French capital and come to dominate the world.
Don Pasquale follows the classic commedia dell'arte form which worked so well for Donizetti in his earlier romantic comedy masterpiece L'elisir d'amore. In Pasquale he introduces once again the well worn comic archetypes: pompous and wealthy old man, scheming rake, naive lover and puckish maiden.
For their first production of the 2014/15 season Manitoba Opera is following the same trail as San Diego and Canadian Opera Company by presenting a version of director David Gately's famous western version of Don Pasquale set in the 1880's. The new setting brings a flavor of Puccinni's La fanciulla del West to what would otherwise be yet another backdrop of early 19th century Italy.
The time travel works well for several reasons. First, classic Hollywood Westerns (sometimes called Horse Operas) borrowing as they do from opera, are already full of melodrama and stock scenes and characters. But secondly and more importantly Donizetti's music travels very well over time and ocean. Though Donizetti could never have planned it, much of his gorgeous and melodic score channels Ennio Morricone. Serendipitously, the setting and music magically gel.
In the famous third act aria Com'è gentil – "How gentle" it's a short stroll musically from Donizetti's plucky original which already gives off a faint aroma of spaghetti western to a classic mariachi serenade. In this new Manitoba Opera production, the onstage guitar players who pluck and strum behind the lover Ernesto (Michele Angelini) do an amazing job of putting us deep in the heart of Texas; as does a massive painted moon.
It's a set that would work as background on the stage of the Grand Old Opry as it does at the Centennial Concert Hall. And a number of Clint Eastwood evoking trumpet flourishes in the opening of the second and third act makes one wonder if Don Pasquale should ever go back to its original garb or should simply go west and stay there.
The sets are classic flats with great paint work. The props are plenty and well crafted including a suitably corny life size plastic horse. The colorful costumes have plenty of checks and fringe and everyone including the chorus look grand.
The ensemble and cast work and sing well together and they find all the comic beats. On opening night, the high notes were the highlight with the plucky Canadian soprano Nikki Einfeld rendering the beautiful singing part of bel canto while handily hitting all the comic notes, too.
Michele Angelini has a clean and comely tenor voice well suited to the bland but kindly Ernesto. Well known bass Peter Strummer is an effective but predicable Don Pasquale and Brett Polegato brings with his baritone a tiny hint of moustache twirling mischief.
The orchestra conducted by Tyrone Paterson is consistent throughout; clearly enjoying the opportunity to begin the night with one of the most entertaining and melodic overtures in the bel canto repertoire. As much as the fun stays in the forefront, this was Donizetti's 65th work and the musical maturity of this perennially popular composer remains as breathtaking today as it did when the crowd rose to their feet in 1843. On Saturday night that trend continued, including some appropriate hollering and foot stamping.
See Don Pasquale at the Centennial Concert Hall on Tuesday November 26 and Friday November 29.