2004 Don Pasquale

Contra Costa Times (California)
Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Merola’s fun ‘Don’ not to be refused

By Georgia Rowe; TIMES CORRESPONDENT

“Don Pasquale” is always a romp. But one seldom encounters a production of
Donizetti’s comic opera with quite as much verve as the one presented by the San
Francisco Opera’s Merola Program over the weekend at the Yerba Buena Center.

There’s nothing like a gifted, energetic cast to bring this buffa treasure to
life, and the singers of the company’s prestigious training program did so in a
bravura performance.

Everything about the production cohered, from the ingeniously funny staging
by director Chuck Hudson to the musical performance, conducted by Dean
Williamson and sung with tremendous vivacity by the cast. If the purpose of the
Merola productions is to showcase the talents of the program’s young artists,
this one succeeded brilliantly.

Hudson set the opera in a posh urban villa in the 1930s, with the title
character a “Don” right out of “The Godfather.” The concept fit the opera like a
glove. Don Pasquale, after all, is a tightfisted old moneybags who rules his
empire with an iron fist and has everything money can buy — everything except
for a young wife, whom he sets about finding the moment the opera begins.

The setting also gave Hudson and his design team — Robert J. Martin (sets),
Kathleen Lussier-West (costumes) and Christopher Maravich (lighting) — an
opportunity to fill the stage with handsome antique furnishings; dress the cast
in elegant vintage evening wear; and turn the ensemble into easily recognizable
comic types, including a pair of pinstriped goodfellas toting big guns to
protect the boss.

Sunday afternoon’s 2-hour, 40-minute performance (presented with two
intermissions) was a kinetic delight. There wasn’t a dull moment in Hudson’s
staging, which overflowed with running gags, visual puns and physical shtick of
every variety. The director set up the laughs, and the cast mined them for all
they were worth.

This year’s Merola participants are an uncommonly strong group of singing
actors. Andrew Wilkowske was particularly impressive in the title role; the
baritone is a resonant vocal presence, and he threw himself fully into the role
of Don Pasquale, tracing the line of the character’s decline in indelible stage
pictures. His Act 1 “Prender moglie!” was sung while doing a spry little dance
step, clutching wads of cash and finally climbing atop his desk; by the end of
Act 3, the character was visibly aged. Wilkowske made the old miser’s pathos, as
well as his comic foibles, evident throughout.

Soprano Rhoslyn Jones, who made her first appearance in a bubble bath — and
sang a portion of “So anch’io la virtu magica” over the phone to Dr. Malatesta
— also gave a winning performance as Norina. There were a few problems at the
top of the range, but for the most part her tone was bright, her phrasing agile.

The company announced that Alexander Tall was suffering from a cold, but the
baritone went on as Malatesta and sang with plenty of vocal power and energy.
Tenor Jeremy Little was a wholesome, ardent Ernesto, and Jeffrey Behrens was a
sturdy Notary. The ensemble, filling multiple roles as butlers, maids and the
aforementioned goodfellas, sang with authority and acted with boundless comic
resources.

Williamson led an expansive performance in the pit, drawing lithe, attractive
playing from the orchestra and lending sensitive support to the singers. As with
all of Merola’s productions, the program’s many hours of training, coaching and
rehearsal paid off handsomely.

The singers of this year’s Merola program will make a final 2004 appearance
Aug. 21 in the Merola Grand Finale at the War Memorial Opera House. The event
will present the singers in a concert program of arias, duets and ensembles.
Catch them now, before they move on to bigger things. For tickets call
415-864-3330.