Thoughtfully considered, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is more cruel than comedic. The title character, annoyed with his nephew Ernesto for refusing the marriage planned for him, decides to marry and thus deprive Ernesto of his inheritance. Don Pasquale’s scheme is foolish, but it hardly merits the vengeance he receives. Ernesto’s friend Dr. Malatesta enlists Ernesto’s beloved Norina to win Don Pasquale’s heart. Following their mock marriage, she becomes a spendthrift and tyrant, until Don Pasquale is happy to give her up to Ernesto. The three young characters end the opera by jeering at the downcast Don Pasquale and pointing out the moral of the story: old people should not get married.

At San Francisco Opera, Laurent Pelly’s production intrigues by bringing out both the darkness and the levity in the opera. Norina is no paragon of virtue: she smokes and drinks and seems careless of the harm she inflicts. After slapping Don Pasquale, she considers her hand for a moment as though shocked at herself—then shrugs and smiles. The amiable, hapless Ernesto is more sympathetic, but he still comes across as spoiled, as worried about losing his luxurious lifestyle as about losing his love. In spite of this, the production provokes many laughs. The staging is a classic farce of exaggerated pantomime style, slammed doors, and comedic gags, most of which are actually funny. (A highlight: Ernesto’s struggles with his suitcases.  A lowlight: Don Pasquale puking into his toupee.)

The sets (by Chantal Thomas) and costumes (by Pelly) set the mood. Norina exudes mid-century Italian glamour, with big petticoats and silky gloves. She is so determined to wreak havoc and horrified by Don Pasquale’s outmoded house that she literally turns it upside-down. The exaggerated perspective of the set causes fun visual illusions when it’s inverted (it seems impossible for the doors to fit their frames) and poses amusing challenges for the cast (Ernesto endearingly flails his way through a four-foot-off-the-ground doorway). The overall sense of place is intentionally vague. Singers walk around walls as well as through doors. The roof becomes a gorgeous, starry night sky (with Ernesto defying his terror of heights to place the moon during his third-act serenade).

Four perfectly cast principals carry the show with their dramatic commitment and vocal and physical athleticism. In the title role, bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro sings, bellows, neighs, and collapses with panache, winning us over with his sheer ridiculousness. He is expressive and strong during both lyrical moments and rapid patter. As his deceptive antagonist Dr Malatesta, Lucas Meachem shows off his usual precision. Every gesture, every breath, every twitch of the eyebrow seems simultaneously carefully calculated and perfectly natural. His voice carries the same contradictions – his rich baritone is legato but crisp. I couldn’t catch a word of “Aspetta, aspetta, cara sposina” once Meacham and Muraro got into the patter, but that’s an artifact of their breakneck pace, not their lack of diction.

Heidi Stober proved a surprisingly cynical Norina, mocking the romance she reads in her opening scene and displaying callous cruelty in her treatment of Don Pasquale. Stober has a wonderful talent for manipulating the quality of her tone while maintaining its purity. She could make a trill sound exasperated or celebratory and a crescendo sound vicious or excited. She used these skills to excellent dramatic effect, all while tossing off high notes and coloratura runs. As Ernesto, Lawrence Brownlee was similarly at home, combining musical prowess with consistently funny stage business. He casually hit dizzying vocal heights while fighting to shove clothes into a suitcase or pounding the ground in despair. His tenor was so ringing and so effortless, it created the illusion that “Cercherò lontana terra” and “Com'è gentil” must be the easiest pieces in the repertoire. (I’m no tenor, but a glance at the score confirmed that this illusion must be very false.) 

Giuseppe Finzi led the orchestra in a tireless reading of Donizetti’s score, full of quick tempi and enthusiastic playing. The volume balance between instrumentalists and singers was just right, and minor coordination issues in the first act disappeared as the show went on. Adam Luftman nailed the tricky second-act trumpet solos. The chorus had nothing to do until the final act, and then they looked and sounded appropriately harried. They joined the last scene as neighbors awakened by the din, but they gamely joined Norina in the final rondo. Don Pasquale was left alone to shut his doors against the cruel world, which all seemed to be against him. Not such a funny ending for a harmlessly foolish old man.