By Sarah Henning
Anchorage Daily News
Every once in awhile, a director gets to be a star in his own show.
Bill Fabris has dug deep into his bag of musical theater tricks to imagine a hysterical, lively and thoroughly accessible “Don Pasquale.”
At the Anchorage Opera's opening performance Saturday in Discovery Theatre, it was clear immediately that many traditionalists will have a hissy fit over this one. Fabris plucked Donizetti’s opera buffa from the mid-19th century and re-set it in 1950s Rome. The broad-as-a-barn acting and nearly constant flurry of stage action – though beloved by the masses – won’t feel refined enough for some die-hard opera fans.
Often comic operas are staged to be amusing, playing to a few polite titters. Fabris’ blatant styling, combined with comically gifted leads, inspired bursts of hearty laughter, and lots of them.
For example, take the soprano’s first aria. Usually, Norina (Maureen McKay) is reading a trashy romance in her bedroom. The vivacious vixen soon tosses it aside and boasts that she knows a thing or two (or 20) about stealing hearts.
Fabris has transplanted this scene to a bustling piazza, where Norina nearly causes a bicycle accident with one coquettish glance. She nonchalantly powders her nose while running up a sheer cliff of coloratura. She gives the waiter a wink, and he rips up her check with a shrug, helpless against her charms. (Certainly, he wasn’t the only one in the theater. It’s not mere flattery to say McKay is positively irresistible.)
The opera opens with Don Pasquale venting to his physician, Dr. Malatesta, about his deadbeat nephew, Ernesto. The 69-year-old don decides he’ll marry a young filly and pop out half a dozen kids, thereby cutting Ernesto out of his inheritance. The enterprising Malatesta teams up with Ernesto’s paramour, Norina, to show the don his foolishness.
Norina disguises herself as a pious and meek woman, with a snort-laugh that would make Amy Sedaris proud. She tricks the don into a fake marriage, and immediately begins acting like a shrew and spending all his money.
In these final scenes especially, Yoshi Tanokura’s whimsical, forward-thinking set and Lauren MacKenzie Miller’s insightful lighting brought a cinematic sophistication to Fabris’ “Roman Holiday” meets ”Light in the Piazza” vision.
Unfortunately, all the theatrical excitement that makes this production so unique and fun is also probably to blame for many of the evening’s vocal hitches. In technique and quality, this quartet of guest artists is the least consistent of the Anchorage Opera’s season. They’re beautiful singers well worth hearing, but they failed to rise to the composer’s demands a few too many times.
Only tenor Javier Abreu as Ernesto delivered a consistent vocal performance. At times, his tone could’ve been brighter. But he was well equipped to handle the role’s high-flying vocal jogging, he oozed charm, and he cemented a strong connection with the audience.
His elegant duet with McKay was incredibly sincere and honest, successfully nestling a poignant heartstring-tugger in the midst of a comic three-ring circus. When he was tackling his higher range and she was in her lower, their blending was achingly beautiful. Seriously, this is a Kleenex moment.
Though Scarlett Johansson could hardly pick apart McKay’s witty acting, vocally the singer emerged a bit timid, gradually doling out more power and evenness. She usually sang best when she wasn’t skipping around a fountain or draping herself on male cast members – i.e. when she could just stand and deliver.
From the balcony, it was difficult to hear several passages. As Pasquale, bass baritone Samuel Smith was particularly plagued with projection issues. Both he and baritone Mark Walters, who played Malatesta, struggled to make audible this opera’s famous (and brutal) patter duet, though their pace was impressive. Their interpretation of their characters was flawless. Walters’ used car salesman approach was right on point, and Smith was a cut-up as the delusional and vain, bad-hairpiece-wearing Pasquale.
The local chorus has been scolded many times in this paper, mainly for sketchy acting and dancing, so it’s a pleasure to report the chorus performed beautifully on Saturday. Champagne all around for the newly polished chorus members, Chorus Master Tom Getty and Fabris for making such huge strides so quickly.
This “Don Pasquale” may not suit the pearls-before-swine set, but Fabris’ delightful new concoction will absolutely extend the Anchorage Opera’s appeal, especially among the iGeneration.
If you go
Anchorage Opera performs “Don Pasquale” 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday, April 20 in Discovery Theatre. Tickets cost $35-$105, half-price for students and seniors on select days. For tickets, call 263-2787 or visit CenterTix here.