The human race craves comic relief... a universally accepted fact throughout the entire history of mankind. Comic books, sitcoms, comic theater... all seek to blissfully whisk us out of the doldrums and politics of today’s ever-busy society. Although opera is often stereotyped as completely tragic, stuffy, and elitist fare, it too contains countless comic gems, including Gaetano Donizetti’s perennial favorite Don Pasquale. A zesty and tasteful blend of Italian farce and morality fable, this delightful little masterpiece sparkled at its opening performance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo and Marlis Petersen © Dan Rest
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo and Marlis Petersen
© Dan Rest

A most comic, cheeky, and witty spectacle, this time-tested 1970s production featured the extravagant sets and glittering costumes of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, originally staged at Covent Garden and currently owned by the Dallas Opera. Rather than proving a trite and dated move, utilizing this classic production proved most refreshing in this world of often scantily-constructed contemporary sets. I literally felt as if I had walked into a 19th-century photograph, having been magically transported back in time, engulfed in the midst of extremely detailed costumes and meticulous historical furnishings. No minute detail was neglected. In fact, these sets were some of the most impressive that I have beheld outside of last year’s Magic Flute production at the Lyric, and the longer waits in between scene changes due to the production’s vintage nature proved most worthwhile.

The integral comedic aspect of this most delightful opera was also masterfully handled. While not overtly slapstick in the campy, 60s Batman sense, this production abounded with tastefully inserted sight gags in both gestures and facial expressions, culminating in a touching finale twist in which Don Pasquale’s friends present him an adorable faux kitten to serve as his life companion. Emotions were masterfully portrayed within the acting, drawing me further into the story, and while Don Pasquale is technically the fool of the story, he never became the object of ridicule within the staging. Rather, he was portrayed as simply a rash, emotional old man confused by his thinking yet still beloved by his friends and staff, thus allowing the story to remain a comic moral fable without ridicule.

The carefully chosen cast proved equally sparkling as the sets and humor. In the title role, Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo proved not only a master for vocal ability, but also a consummate master of visual illusion. D’Arcangelo’s youthfulness was so well-concealed in makeup and in body language that I was perpetually deceived that I was beholding a bumbling, rash, 70-year-old gentleman. Similarly, charming soprano Marlis Petersen as Norina was deliciously sassy and spunky, possessing superior bel canto vocal technique and acting ability. Petersen’s Norina proved a mischievous, cunning young lass carefully playing her cards and simultaneously relishing her job tormenting Don Pasquale. Most crucial, however, proved Ryan Center alumnus Rene Barbera as Ernesto – whose gorgeous, floating tenor voice and youthful presence elicited torrents of “Bravos” from the audience during curtain calls.

As I walked away from the Lyric that evening amid the city’s multitude of twinkling Christmas lights, I could not help but think how much this twinkling little opera and time-tested production had served as perfect pre-holiday fare and glimpse into the past – not only into the 19th century, but also into the past of opera history in set-making and singing. By today’s standards, just happily-ever-after comic fare and vintage, no-frills sets may seem dated, yet upon closer examination, they provide a delightful diversion, conjuring up a fantasy not too unlike the twinkling of the Christmas lights outside. For anyone seeking sheer delight and an escape from traditional holiday shows, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s presentation of Don Pasquale is a true winner!

****1