Normally, when one encounters a relatively new opera company, one makes gentle allowances for shortcomings: not enough rehearsal time, pick-up band otherwise involved, singers too young and inexperienced, ensemble weak, direction amateurish. Giving the lie to this mostly-true theory is the Berkshire Opera Festival in Great Barrington, MA, now beginning its fourth season. It is wisely conservative – just one fully staged opera a year plus a handful of concerts – all superbly planned and performed.

Craig Colclough (Don Pasquale) and Emmett O'Hanlon (Dr Malatesta) © Ken Howard
Craig Colclough (Don Pasquale) and Emmett O'Hanlon (Dr Malatesta)
© Ken Howard

With Ariadne auf Naxos, Madama Butterfly and Rigoletto under their belts, this year’s centerpiece is Donizetti’s final comic opera (and 65th, overall), the 1843 Don Pasquale. A buffo work with a heart, it seemed very much at home in the 600 seat, 115 year old, lovingly restored Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. With no orchestra pit, the 30+ piece Festival Orchestra took up a bit more than a third of the stage (the depth of the stage added to the seating), with the rest – and a balcony up a staircase, as the playing space. Stephen Dobay’s “set” was minimalist but marvelous – a comfy armchair (which is replaced by a monstrous, modern, orange swiveling one by “Sofronia” in the last act), a small table, and the aforementioned staircase and balcony for entrances and exits offered enough room and the right ambiance. Jonathan Loy, director (and the company’s co-founder) helped us sympathize with Don Pasquale – a real human being and not such a bad guy that he deserves to be slapped by his new “wife” in addition to being duped – whose antics on the vulgar twirling chair were hilarious. Malatesta was treated as the slick player he always is, and Norina, it turns out, much to Pasquale’s horror after they marry, is into S&M, complete with whip. Ernesto’s foppishness was somewhat overplayed, as was insistence on all the characters’ dancing every so often. But heavens, it was funny.

Craig Colclough (Don Pasquale) and Deanna Breiwick (Norina) © Ken Howard
Craig Colclough (Don Pasquale) and Deanna Breiwick (Norina)
© Ken Howard

What fine singers! Craig Colclough, whose credits include Telramund and Fra Melitone, is a bass-baritone to reckon with. The voice rolled through the house, diction perfect. His Pasquale was arrogant, boyishly hopeful, outraged and pathetic by turns, his singing free of silly buffo mannerisms, the voice grand. Deanna Breiwick, late of small roles at big houses (The Met) and big roles at medium houses (Opera Omaha), was a delicious, sexy, soubrettish Norina, stunning in all her outfits and wonderfully trashy in leather. The voice is bright, a bit overly so at the top, but coloratura, pitch and enunciation are flawless.

Young baritone Emmett O’Hanlon personified Dr Malatesta (he made his European debut in the role last year). Cynical but not evil, playfully wicked, he cajoled each cast member singing with fine, easy sound and great charm. Matthew Grills' shiny light tenor (he recently sang Pedrillo with Opera San Jose) was just right for Ernesto, although Mr Loy directed him too much as a dandy and not enough as a jealous lover, and the decision to have him on stage rather than in the wings for his beautiful serenade “Com’e gentil,” was a mistake – it came across as too loud. Siddharth Dubey’s Notary hit the spot.

Deanna Breiwick (Norina), Matthew Grills (Ernesto), Craig Colclough, Emmett O'Hanlon (Malatesta) © Ken Howard
Deanna Breiwick (Norina), Matthew Grills (Ernesto), Craig Colclough, Emmett O'Hanlon (Malatesta)
© Ken Howard

Conductor (and co-founder) Brian Garman (a veteran of the New York City Opera, Wolf Trap and the Pittsburgh Opera) clearly loves Don Pasquale, and he has trained his orchestra and chorus for intimate moments as well as great outbursts.

Next summer promises Don Giovanni. A challenge, but there’s no need for concern; this young company has the spirit and craft at its finger tips.